Encampments banned on public grounds in Altamonte Springs
In the absence of public comments or dissenting opinions, the city of Altamonte Springs unanimously voted Tuesday to ban people from camping out in public spaces.
The decision follows repeated failed attempts to get one man off city property. The new ordinance gives law enforcement the authority to remove anyone refusing to vacate public spaces.
Before this, the city did not have legal recourse to do so — even if an individual blocked sidewalks, streets, or disturbed local establishments — and according to City Manager Frank Martz, that's because it had never been necessary.
Martz said the city and law enforcement have always been able to resolve issues regarding displaced residents, but problems with one man who was defiantly camping on the sidewalk and harassing drivers led to the change.
“He knew that our ordinances did not allow us to move him," Martz said. "In this case, he did not want to vacate the encampment he made on our sidewalk, and in fact, brought in a grill and a mini gym, and hung a punching bag from a tree.”
Martz said the situation escalated, as the man continued to decline the city's efforts to find a place for him.
“We really don't have a homeless problem in our city," Martz said. "What we typically do is we ask someone, ‘What can we do to help?’ And we always offer to take someone to find shelter. And if we can't find a place for them at a shelter, we put them up in hotels.”
According to Martz, the man was defiant. He refused to vacate the public space and expanded his stay. Martz said law enforcement got involved when patrons began complaining, as well as drivers, reporting the man was yelling at people and banging on car hoods.
The new law now gives law enforcement the authority to remove people from public spaces, potentially leading to arrest and penalties.
But Martz said he thinks that outside of this isolated incident, it won't go that far. The law is now in place to avoid extreme cases, but he said the city's compassionate approach has always worked, and he expects it will continue to bring order.
"I'm very proud of what we do in the compassionate service that we provide. And homelessness in our region and nationally is something that we're all going to have to figure out how to address," he said. "It really requires something other than every little city having their own shelter."
Anyone breaking the new law could receive a sentence of up to 60 days in jail and a fined of $500, but law enforcement would need to present a housing alternative before removing violators.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.