To deal with panhandlers, City of Sarasota wants to criminalize sitting on sidewalks

Anti-homeless ordinances are typically problematic, and they’re often unconstitutional.

click to enlarge To deal with panhandlers, City of Sarasota wants to criminalize sitting on sidewalks
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City of Sarasota commissioners will attempt to criminalize resting in public spaces. 

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, earlier this week commissioners voted unanimously on a motion that would allow city officials to prepare a “sit-lie” ordinance that would effectively criminalize sitting or lying on sidewalks in parts of downtown between the hours of 10 a.m. and midnight.

The ordinance would make exceptions for people blocking sidewalks with strollers and wheelchairs, people having a medical emergency, people involved with permitted events or protests, people dining outdoors at restaurants, and people waiting for public transportation.

Coincidentally, Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier warned the commission that “there is a probably better than even possibility” that the ordinance could be challenged in court, reports the publication. 

Fournier's warning isn't unfounded. Anti-homeless ordinances are typically problematic, and they’re often unconstitutional. 

Last February, the City of Ocala lost a landmark class-action lawsuit, after an ordinance (eerily similar to Sarasota’s) attempted to make it illegal to rest on public property. 

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of plaintiffs Patrick McCardle, Courtney Ramsey, Anthony Cummings and more than 200 other unsheltered people who were arrested under the city’s open lodging ordinance, was represented by the Southern Legal Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, and attorney Andy Pozzuto.

One major focus of the lawsuit took issue with the ordinance’s overall selective nature, like how it’s only illegal to sleep outside if the person reports being unsheltered, while allowing others to sleep outside without being jailed or fined. 

According to the lawsuit, one unsheltered plaintiff was fined a total of $3,690.50 in fines and court costs after spending 148 hours in jail, for 10 counts of “open lodging.” 

“These are people who need support, housing, jobs, and services,” said Chelsea Dunn, an attorney with Southern Legal Counsel. “Instead, they are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of jail, debt, and other collateral consequences.” 

A 2019 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty surveyed 187 urban and rural cities across the country and found that over the last 13 years there’s been a significant increase in policies that punish the unsheltered for “life-sustaining conduct,” which include things like sleeping, sitting or lying down, and living in vehicles within public space. 

“We refer to these policies and their enforcement collectively as the ‘criminalization of homelessness,’ even though these laws are punishable as both criminal and civil offenses,” read the report. 

Sarasota’s proposed ordinance will be presented at a future commission meeting ahead of a public hearing.

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About The Author

Colin Wolf

Colin Wolf has been working with weekly newspapers since 2007 and has been the Digital Editor for Creative Loafing Tampa since 2019. He is also the Director of Digital Content Strategy for CL's parent company, Euclid Media Group.
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