Homelessness & Trespassing, Public vs. Private Property

December 17, 2013 —

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

By Fred Maas, Police Chief

In Part One of a series dealing with Homelessness and its related issues, we covered some general perceptions and misconceptions about the topic. The feedback from a variety of concerned readers and residents was tremendous. It only bore proof that the issue has wide-reaching effects on a great number of us.  There was also feedback regarding citizen’s personal observations and their validated experiences in dealing with the Homeless over a great many years, both here and in other parts of the country.  I wanted to acknowledge their contributions and feedback to this series and I greatly respect their opinions.

There was also a need for a few clarifications from the Part One article.  When a crime has been committed, whether Felony, Misdemeanor or Ordinance violation, rest assured our Sunny Isles Beach Police Department officers will certainly take action and deal with it appropriately, including arrest or promise to appear in court.  There are NO passes just because someone is homeless to commit a crime.  Everyone is held accountable under the law.  The other point needing clarification is that another root cause of homelessness is the fact that many are in the situation they are in because of felony and/or repeated misdemeanor convictions.  This may have a direct result on whether a person is eligible or acceptable of being hired for employment. Many are skeptical of repeat offenders with a history of criminal behavior so they steer clear of hiring them for their business.  Others believe in second chances and are willing to give someone a chance at a job to prove themselves again. The point is valid however, that many who are homeless could have caused their own state of affairs.

Moving on to this second part of the series, we deal with a legal issue of public vs. private property and the difference between when an officer or property owner wants to take action.  On first glance, it seems clear that the private property owner (i.e. a business owner or residential homeowner) has greater latitude in the enforcement of laws on trespassing that affect the homeless population.

For example, if an individual is panhandling or begging in front of a privately owned business, it is indeed the owners’ right to allow or forbid that type of activity from going on. The police are often called by customers or others who are annoyed by this practice.  Most often, it is the business owner’s call as to whether the police put the person(s) off the property under a trespass violation or not.  The same holds true for the residential owner who wants people off their property. However, in cases of public property, i.e. government buildings, open spaces and parks owned by governments or cities, the homeless have the same rights as every other citizen during normal operating hours.  Unless there is a specific ordinance, restraining a particular action, i.e. camping overnight on the beach or in a park, there is no difference under the law between the citizenry.  Daytime hours in government centers and facilities like libraries, etc. during operating hours may only enforce their house rules on everyone, not specific against anyone.  If a person is creating a disturbance or violating the rules of the facility or service provider then the person can be asked or demanded to leave.

This refers back to Part One of this series, that often times we may find them to be an annoyance or disturbing to others, but that in and of itself is NOT a reason for selective enforcement.  There are NO easy answers when one tackles such a difficult topic as Homelessness.  But it should always be our goal as public servants, to at least offer assistance or direction to the individual who truly wants help. Even the authorities are sometimes divided on what is positive help and what is “enabling” help, but no matter the outcome, the fact that help was offered to another human being should be all that matters.

Read Part 1: Homelessness is a Problem, Not Always a Crime…

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
The Chapman Partnership
Miami Dade County Homeless Trust