In the face of intense backlash from homeless advocates and civil-rights organizations, the West Palm Beach City Commission voted unanimously to criminalize certain homeless behavior in order to preserve the city's "aesthetic beauty."
In a new ordinance passed on Monday, panhandling is now prohibited in the downtown and Northwood Village areas of West Palm Beach, making the act punishable by a fine of up to $500 or 60 days of jail time. The original language of the ordinance also banned sleeping in public, though that clause was removed before the law was approved.
The city's agenda explains that the measure "regulates and prohibits certain conduct that would negatively affect the aesthetic beauty and the health, sanitation, and public safety of the City's Downtown and Northwood Areas." According to West Palm Beach leaders, it's a "systemic problem...placing the profitability of businesses in those areas at risk and threatening the individual well-being of citizens and visitors."
Local homeless-advocacy groups including Food Not Bombs and the October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, as well as the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), fought back against the measure. Advocates argued that the ordinance specifically targeted people experiencing homelessness because it was originally written to carve out exceptions for people camping for outdoor events while prohibiting people from sleeping in their cars or in public parks for any other reason.
"It's wrong and un-American," says Nicholas Cubides, a volunteer for Food Not Bombs. "You cannot tell humans in this country where they can exist and at what times."
During the meeting, Mayor Keith James said the ordinance was not meant to target homeless people but merely meant to regulate behavior that harms businesses in downtown and Northwood. And he claimed the ordinance was perfectly legal because the regulation is limited to two areas of the city, allowing homeless individuals to move to other areas.
Commissioner Joseph Peduzzi, who began to question the ordinance during the discussion, pushed back against the mayor's argument, saying that if homeless people are driven to other parts of the city, at some point they may have nowhere else to go.
Another commissioner who challenged the ordinance, Cory Neering, said he has a family member who experienced homelessness in West Palm Beach and was unable to find space in any shelters in the city. Neering was concerned that people who couldn't find shelter space would wind up getting arrested or fined because they had no choice other than to sleep outside.
But James resisted requests from commissioners to table the ordinance for further review, saying he wanted a vote on it right away. After a long period of discussion, the ordinance finally passed without the language prohibiting sleeping outdoors; the prohibitions on public urination and defecation and on panhandling remain intact.
Jackie Azis, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida, says that even without the outdoor sleeping provision, the ordinance violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because prohibiting people from asking for donations infringes on their freedom of speech.
"The concern is that the government cannot tell people what they're allowed to talk about in public," Azis tells New Times. "What they passed is the same as telling the community, 'You can't talk about politics in downtown.'"
Panhandling bans have been struck down in other Florida cities on similar grounds. Federal judges ruled bans in Ybor City and Miami to be unconstitutional, saying they infringed on the free-speech rights of homeless individuals.
Although the pandemic has left many people jobless and without their livelihoods this year, South Florida cities haven't stopped trying to criminalize homeless behaviors or otherwise make life difficult for marginalized people. In May, Miami Beach passed a panhandling ban that was challenged by the ACLU. (The city quietly removed the ban.) In Fort Lauderdale, advocates alleged that the city built an unnecessary parking lot in order to drive out a homeless encampment.
Azis says the ACLU is prepared to challenge West Palm Beach's ordinance in court and is eager to hear from anyone who is arrested or fined for panhandling once the new law takes effect.
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