Suit Filed Against City of St. Petersburg on Behalf of Homeless Residents
Press Type: Press Release Associated Program: Civil Rights
Southern Legal Counsel (SLC), Florida Institutional Legal Services (FILS), and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday on behalf of a class of homeless plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of a number of ordinances and practices that target homeless individuals living in St. Petersburg.
Since early 2007, St. Petersburg has passed six ordinances that target homeless individuals, including four different ones that make it unlawful to sleep, lie down or recline outside at various locations throughout the city and prohibiting the use of temporary shelters. The other ordinances outlaw panhandling throughout most of downtown and prohibit thestorage of personal belongings on public property.
"The City of St. Petersburg has essentially turned the issue of homelessness over to the criminal justice system. Subjecting homeless individuals to an endless cycle of arrest, incarceration and homelessness under these city ordinances and practices wastes valuable city and county resources and is ineffective in addressing the root causes of homelessness," said Kirsten Clanton, a staff attorney at SLC.
According to the 2007 Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless' Annual Homeless Count and Survey, there are 5,195 homeless individuals, 1,221 of which are unsheltered, living in Pinellas County. Approximately 40%, or 1,700, of those individuals reside primarily in the City of St. Petersburg. Without adequate shelter space or affordable housing, many homeless St. Petersburg residents are forced to live outside.
The named plaintiffs in the suit have been cited or arrested for a wide range of activities they must do to survive. In addition, police have banned plaintiffs from certain public parks, have unlawfully searched them, and have penalized some for having property in public spaces.
"The City of St. Petersburg's use of the county jail to "solve" the issue of homelessness is counterproductive, inefficient and expensive. It actually makes the situation worse because criminal convictions create additional barriers for those who struggle to obtain stable and safe housing," said Peter Sleasman, a staff attorney at FILS.
SLC, FILS, and NLCHP assert that the ordinances and practices used to target the plaintiffs violate a wide range of constitutional protections, from the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, to the right to travel, to free speech rights. The groups also claim that certain of the challenged measures are void for vagueness, violate the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and violate equal protection rights.
"While we unfortunately see many communities across the country criminalizing homelessness, what has been happening in St. Petersburg over the past couple years is one of the worst examples nationally of widespread abuse of homeless persons' civil and human rights," said Tulin Ozdeger, NLCHP's Civil Rights Director.
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to stop enforcement of the ordinances and practices at issue and a declaration of the unconstitutionality of these practices.
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