Homelessness Is A Problem, Not Always A Crime…

November 21, 2013 —

This is Part One of a Series from Sunny Isles Beach Police Department Staff

By Fred Maas, Police Chief

At least once a week, local or national media devote their attention to the topic of “The Homeless.”  Whether it is an isolated incident, a local story or a national ruling by the Supreme Court, the issue is constantly in the limelight.  How local communities deal with it and respond to it, is the subject of much controversy as well.  The following is the first of a series of articles on this topic because quite frankly there is too much to cover in just one writing.  Contributions to this report have come from multiple departments in the City, from the City Manager and Police Chief to the Crime Prevention Specialist and Patrol Officer.

They arrive by day or night, all their worldly possessions in duffle bags, suitcase or several plastic bags.  Some have only the clothes on their back to wear.  In many cases they are unsightly and the average citizen will simply avoid them.  Some pass thru our city, others stay for a few days or weeks, others make it a place to call “home.”  Their reasons are varied but center around a core group of common factors:  financial ruin, loss of job and home, mental illness, physical ailments or restrictions.  And of course, “homeless by choice” which we hear of more and more in today’s society.

One of the biggest obstacles the law enforcement officers encounter that even when they do extend an offer for help, to be taken to a shelter or a home, it is emphatically refused.  Many do not want the restrictions imposed upon them at a shelter.  They want the freedom to move about and do what they want.  So they forego the offers for help.

Most shelters also fill up quickly by those who do want some assistance.  So when there is a need to house someone, there is NO guarantee you will get them placed.  NO BEDS means just that; we are full and have no space.  This makes it tough on the officer or social worker who tries to offer assistance to a homeless person, but then finds out there is nothing for them.  They have no choice but to leave them or if they have committed a criminal act, arrest them.  The aspect of incarceration is a whole matter of its own to be taken up in a separate article for this series.

On first sight, they make us feel uncomfortable.  They are more of an annoyance by their actions than threatening.  They often refuse help to help themselves, but at the same time they infringe upon the rights of other citizens.  For example:  IT IS NOT A CRIME to sleep on a bus bench.  Does it look unsightly, of course, especially if it is widespread and frequent in a community.  But, it is unacceptable to prevent others from sitting on that bus bench because you have taken it up in its entirety by sleeping, sprawled out on it.  Unfortunately, law enforcement officers can only contact, check out and either move along or modify the homeless behavior.

In order to incarcerate there MUST be a criminal act and quite frankly, Florida State Statutes don’t deal with routine matters of life sustaining issues of homelessness, as a criminal act.  In some areas, local ordinances will be the catalyst for arrest for acts such as urinating in public or panhandling in the streets.  Those are no more effective than the trip to the county jail as the arrestee is released in the morning with credit for time served.  And many, including the A.C.L.U. and other organizations have challenged the constitutionality of arresting a homeless person for committing life sustaining acts in public.

Too often we in law enforcement hear the calls and complaints from residents to do something about the problem.  Some have even captured on photo, the acts of the homeless, like sleeping on bus benches.  Unfortunately, you can take ALL the pictures you want, but it is still NOT a crime to occupy a bus bench in public.  Local law enforcement may require you to sit up and not impose on others’ space, but it is not an arrestable offense.  However, when persons cross the line and do commit minor misdemeanor offenses, or violate local ordinances, then it becomes a clear cut issue for law enforcement.  Even then our goal is to get them help, not short term incarceration.  But as we all know, the help starts from within and the desire has to be there on their part.

In the next article of this series, we will cover and give examples of PRIVATE property vs. Public property and how it affects circumstances in the topic of “HOMELESS!”

Read Part Two: Homelessness & Trespassing, Public vs. Private Property


Author’s Note:

Contributions and research for this series was conducted by:

Chief Fred Maas and Police Department
City Manager’s Office Staff
Corporal Cary Vesco
Ms. Sandra Block, Crime Prevention Specialist