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City of Ocala Sued by ACLU and Southern Legal Counsel Over Ordinance Used to Police Homeless

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Southern Legal Counsel sued the City of Ocala today to end its open lodging ordinance. 

The rule makes it illegal for homeless people to sleep or even rest in public places. 

Officers in Ocala who find homeless people sleeping or resting on park benches can fine them or give them jail time under the ordinance.

Southern Legal Counsel’s Director of Litigation Kirsten Anderson says the lawsuit they filed against the city does not argue for a person’s right to live on the streets. 

But she says in Ocala where there’s an affordable housing crisis and limited shelter beds, it needs to at least be an option. 

"You have no choice but to sleep and be somewhere. Because as a human being we have to do certain things to survive including sleeping. And so by making it a crime to sleep, that is indistinguishable from making it a crime to be homeless within the city limits of the city of Ocala."

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The University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies found Marion County had a shortage of more than 4,500 affordable units for extremely low income families.

That's why ACLU attorney Jacqueline Azis says the city can’t fine or arrest its way out of its housing crisis.

"Arresting is never the answer, but that is what Ocala has chosen instead of the other options that are open to it including helping people and creating an opportunity for having affordable housing."

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The Marion County Homeless Council conducted a survey of the homeless population in April and found that more than 330 adults living without children were homeless. About half of these did not have shelter.

In a statement a spokesperson for the City of Ocala said they had received the litigation and attorneys were working to review the details of the documents.
If you'd like to listen to the story, click on the clips above.

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter and fill-in host at WMFE.