Homeless people are yet again being harassed in Sarasota (once named America’s Meanest City).
My homeless friends often spend time in our public park at Five Points, and at our public library. I observe them behaving as “normally” as any of us do. They chat, they laugh, they occasionally have public quarrels; in the library they read or use the computers for job searches.
I enjoy meeting them as I visit the library or the Opera House across the street.
Their offences against public ordinances are those of which people with homes are also often guilty – e.g. public urination ( I’ve done that!) and violating our open bottle laws (i.e. drinking on the streets or in the parks – an offence which I have frequently observed by “nice people” on Siesta Beach).
A number of them were recently cited for littering - because they dropped cigarette butts to the ground. It seems curious that (apparently) prosperous shoppers or restaurant customers are never cited for this form of litter.
When stressed they are sometimes a wee bit obnoxious - and so am I.
The homeless commit next to no violent crimes such as assault and battery, or “mugging”.
One business owner has launched a campaign to rid down town of homeless people. She claims that their presence is deterring shoppers (notwithstanding that we are in a recession, and that her store carries high-priced top end clothing which may have something to do with her lack of business).
Luck may be with her. The sidewalk which runs along one part of her store is legally private property. It was deeded in a civically dubious way to a company called “Whole Foods”, as a sweetener, designed to persuade them to locate downtown. The Police Lieutenant whose “brief” is to deal with homeless has suggested that Whole Foods exercise their right as the sidewalk owners by having homeless folks cited for “trespass”.
(He also had the bright idea of removing some of the benches in the park so that homeless people would have less incentive to use the park).
Some of the responses by Sarasota citizens (as expressed in our local newspaper) have been equally creative. One writer suggested giving homeless people a ‘bus ticket out of the County, on the understanding that they would be arrested if they returned within one year. Another writer said that we should send the homeless to Newton where he asserted “all the other losers live”. (Newtown is our predominately black neighbourhood).
All this begs the question of how such suggestions would be implemented, and at what cost of money and time to the police force.
It’s hard also to know how the authorities would identify someone as homeless. It seems certain that the first time a “non-homeless person” was cited or arrested for trespass on that particular sidewalk there would be hell to pay.
The larger questions are not being addressed in the current local debate. These questions have to do with the failed nature of our economic system which needs a permanent underclass in order to operate.
And they have to do with the constitutional rights of all Americans.
Meanwhile, Sarasota strives to regain her listing as “America’s meanest City” and here (as in many parts of the United States) homelessness is viewed as the major crime.