City ordinances criminalizing sleeping in public and panhandling used to target homeless individuals violate First and Eighth Amendment; Six plaintiffs, including a recent YouTube sensation, claim their rights have been violated by the police enforcing these laws

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – October 1, 2015
CONTACT: ACLU of Florida Media Office, media@aclufl.org, (786) 363-2737

SARASOTA, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida’s Sarasota Chapter has filed a lawsuit on behalf of six homeless persons challenging Sarasota city policies that have been used to target and harass homeless people.

A lawsuit filed yesterday in state court points to “the City’s persistent efforts to criminalize the status of those who are homeless” and argues that Sarasota ordinances that criminalize sleeping violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and that a separate ordinance criminalizing panhandling unconstitutionally restricts speech. Since January 1, 2013, the City of Sarasota has brought 882 criminal prosecutions against the homeless for lodging out of doors and for sleeping in a public park after hours.

“These practices have the effect of criminalizing homelessness itself,” stated attorney Andrea Mogensen, Chair of the ACLU of Florida’s legal panel and Vice Chair of the Sarasota Chapter. “These measures do not accomplish any significant or legitimate public policy goal. Instead, they perpetuate the cycle of homelessness by decreasing opportunities for homeless individuals to find housing and gainful employment and take care of their health needs.”

Under existing Sarasota laws, people caught sleeping outside are supposed to have an opportunity to be placed in a shelter for the night before being criminally cited. However, even when this policy is followed, the only large-scale homeless shelter often pointed to by the city, The Salvation Army, is chronically overcrowded. The facility has exceeded its maximum capacity on 235 nights this year alone, with individuals seeking shelter crowded into hallways and kitchens on thin mats on the floor. When homeless persons cannot find shelter in the Salvation Army, they are often criminally cited by the Sarasota Police.

“Sarasota’s homelessness issue is simply larger than the available shelter can accommodate, and the city’s policy of addressing homelessness through the criminal justice system isn’t helping anybody,” stated Michael Barfield, Vice President of the ACLU of Florida. “Not all problems that a city faces can be solved by sending someone to jail. Instead of pursuing policies that treat the homeless as unworthy of the protections of our laws, Sarasota needs to start working on solutions that treat the underlying problems that lead people to homelessness. But in the meantime, they must respect the constitutional rights of everyone in our city – even the neediest people.”

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Donald Gould, recently became an internet video sensation when video of him playing an outdoor piano in Sarasota challenged many people’s perceptions about homeless persons. Before the video brought fame and a placement in a transitional housing facility, Gould was repeatedly cited for lodging outdoors and other offenses.

“But for the Grace of God, I am here today,” stated Gould. “I went from playing a piano on the streets of Sarasota three months ago to playing the National Anthem for the 49ers in San Francisco. Not everyone gets the same opportunities that I have. It’s important to me that I do what I can to make things right.”

The treatment of homeless individuals in Sarasota has been the subject of scrutiny for years, earning it the title of “Meanest City in America” from the National Coalition for the Homeless. In 2012, the ACLU uncovered threatening messages between police officers boasting of going “bum hunting.” In November 2014, a homeless man named Chris Nelson died from yellow jacket stings while seeking shelter in bushes hiding from police he feared would arrest him for sleeping outdoors.

As the result of a separate lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Florida’s Sarasota Chapter, the City of Sarasota entered into a consent decree in 2013 to stop enforcing a solicitation ordinance that was being used to target homeless people in the city.

A copy of the complaint, filed in the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota, is available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/complaint-sarasota-homeless/

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