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As Florida advances camping ban, Orlando's homeless ask, 'Where are we supposed to go?'

Ryan Gillespie, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

ORLANDO, Fla. — As Florida officials move to ban people from sleeping on public property, Peter Roberts wonders where he’ll be forced to go.

Now he spends daytime hours at the Christian Service Center in Orlando, where he gets meals, toiletries and other services.

But at night when it closes, Roberts, who has been homeless for nearly two years, said sleeping on the sidewalk is his only option in a community lacking sufficient affordable housing and where limited shelter beds are almost always full. His disability check isn’t enough to cover rent for a place of his own, he said.

“It seems like we’re being punished now,” he said when told of the impending ban. “I’ve got to lay down somewhere – I’ve got to sleep.”

Florida Republicans have prioritized legislation this year forcing cities and counties to ban public sleeping, which also authorizes residents, business owners and the state attorney general to bring civil action against governments that turn a blind eye.

Bills laying out the plans have soared through committees in the House and Senate, and Republicans passed the legislation through the House on Friday. The Senate is scheduled to take the issue up this week, putting it on the fast track to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk by the time the session is expected to close March 8. DeSantis has endorsed the plans.

 

The proposals allow counties to create permanent encampments, where all of an area’s unsheltered population would be directed. The legislation requires such encampments to have 24-hour security, clean restrooms, water, behavioral health services and case managers.

What it doesn’t say is what happens if a county decides it cannot afford such an encampment – advocates suspect most, if not all counties will decide they can’t – or if a person refuses to go.

“Our bill doesn’t prescribe criminal penalties. We leave it to the local jurisdictions to make a determination on what is the best way to address the problem,” said Rep. Sam Garrison, a Republican, this week. “They can go wherever they want. They just cannot stay on public property overnight, or public right of way or public buildings.”

Garrison has maintained the plan is compassionate and shows Florida leaders care about the unsheltered by bringing them better access to services.

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