Jeremy's Notebook

Homeless Ordinances Find Home

May 24, 2013

city  council, homeless orndinanceThe Pensacola City Council’s passage of the so-called homeless ordinances has been an uncomfortable affair. During the first reading, it was the Boy Scouts. Thursday, it was a Chinese visitor with the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council.

Council President P.C. Wu introduced the Chinese journalist early on. He had been named an honorary citizen of the city and the evening was still in awards-and-presentation mode.

“I heard about some of the ordinances that are being discussed tonight,” began Jin Rah, through a translator, “and if I may express some personal opinion, which might be unpopular.”

“Well, actually, a greeting will be fine,” Wu interrupted.

The Chinese journalist continued, but Wu wouldn’t hear it. There’d be plenty to hear later. It was going to be a long night. Five more hours until someone cried “fascism” one more time and the gavel came down.

“OK, with that, let me say a few words,” Wu said, as he proceeded to speak three words to the visitors in Chinese. “Those are the only things I know. What I just told them was ‘welcome, hello and goodbye.’ And with that, thank you very much gentleman.”

“May I translate that last sentence,” the translator asked.

“No, that’s it, please, thank you,” Wu said.

Audience members, most there to speak against the ordinances, booed and heckled the president’s move.

“They’re use to having their speech repressed,” attorney Alistair McKenzie called out from his seat.

The visitors returned to the public gallery, where other visiting Chinese journalists sat watching with the diplomacy council. In whispers, Jin Rah and his translator shared the interrupted sentiment.

“There should be a more lengthy and careful investigation of what the people that are homeless need—what kind of help they need and want, and what pedestrians want,” the Chinese journalist said.

For the next few hours, council members discussed the three ordinances on the table and listened to overwhelmingly negative feedback from the public—the same scene as in previous discussions on the subject.

The ordinances prohibit ‘camping,’ washing and other activities in public restrooms and public urination and defecation. A fourth ordinance, targeting ‘aggressive’ panhandling, was also on the table, but will not be formalized until the next council meeting.

Mayor Ashton Hayward’s administration—primarily via City Administrator and mayoral stand-in Bill Reynolds—has argued that the ordinances are needed to address the city’s  public safety and aesthetic issues.

Homeless advocates, however, contend that the ordinance effectively criminalize homelessness, while not addressing the root problem or offering any viable solutions. Speakers during Thursday’s meeting urged the council to consider costs, Constitutional concerns and “human dignity.”

Several homeless people also addressed the council last night. They asked the council members—who offered a silent response—where they were suppose to go and what they were suppose to do. They begged for empathy.

“It takes only one slip, one thing, and you are there,” said David Lee, who is homeless.

Toward the end of the meeting, President Wu would note that the council and public had spent 18 hours, spanning several meetings, discussing the ordinances. While that discussion was packed with passionate outrage throughout, the final results were never really in question—the efforts would obviously pass along a predictable line, with only councilpersons Sherri Myers, Charles Bare and Gerald Wingate opposing.

After council passed the first ordinance—the ban on ‘camping’—Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons enjoyed some fresh air outside city hall and offered his analysis.

“We are not waiting in the wings to arrest people,” Simmons said.

The chief explained that, if the ordinances made it onto the books, he intended to enforce them in a “planned manner.” First, offenders would be warned, then cited and finally arrested.

“There’s a perception that a lot of people are going to be arrested,” Simmons said. “I’m not convinced that that’s the case. Maybe I’m an optimist.”

McKenzie was also standing outside city hall. No stranger to courtroom wranglings with the city administration, the attorney indicated that legal challenges were probably inevitable.

“I’ve been retained, I’m looking into it,” McKenzie said. “From a legal standpoint, the laws are way over broad and there’s a host of Constitutional issues.”

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