Surfside considers crackdown on homeless, including a ban on soap at public showers

Aaron Leibowitz

Thu, January 12, 2023, 

Surfside officials are considering new legislation in an apparent attempt to crack down on the homeless in the small beachfront town, including bans on “aggressive” panhandling, sleeping overnight in public places and using soap or shampoo at public showers.

The five-member town commission voted unanimously Tuesday to have the town’s attorney draft an ordinance that follows the direction of Mayor Shlomo Danzinger, who issued a memo outlining a series of proposed changes to ensure a “safe, orderly and sanitary environment on pedestrian and public places.”

Danzinger’s proposals are not yet law, and it’s not clear how violators would be punished. After an ordinance is drafted, commissioners would still need to approve it at two separate meetings.

But the ideas have already drawn the attention of some residents and advocates who say the measures would target homeless people for simply trying to survive.

“It’s both wrong and counterproductive,” Stephen Schnably, a University of Miami law professor and ACLU cooperating attorney, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Homelessness is not a choice.”

Ron Book, a lobbyist who chairs the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, told the Miami Herald he was taken aback. The proposed ban on using soap or shampoo at beachfront showers, he said, is “one of the most absurd proposals I have ever heard or seen in an effort to somehow put a distance between a homeless individual and others in our community.”

A list of potential banned activities

The mayor’s memo contemplates bans on five types of activities: obstructing sidewalks and streets, sleeping or camping on the beach or other public property, showering with chemical substances or washing clothes on the beach street ends, aggressive or obstructive panhandling and other “disorderly conduct,” and urinating or defecating on public property.

Schnably, who worked on the landmark Pottinger case that sought to prevent city of Miami police from harassing the homeless, said the Surfside proposals could punish homeless people for “basic, life-sustaining conduct.” A lack of affordable housing and sufficient shelter beds leaves people on the street involuntarily, he said, while a lack of public restrooms can force homeless people to relieve themselves in public.

“For most people living on the streets, they’re not irrationally choosing to live on the streets,” Schnably said.

Gerardo Vildostegui, a Surfside resident and a former constitutional law professor, said Danzinger’s memo appears to “target a particular class of people,” potentially opening up the town to a lawsuit.

Danzinger pointed out his memo doesn’t contain the word “homeless.”

“This is not targeting a specific demographic or the homeless at all,” he said. “We are looking to target people who don’t follow our laws.”

He added that the town has received reports of people urinating, defecating and masturbating in public and has “no laws to stop that.”

Careful wording requested

Indecent exposure is already illegal under Florida law, but municipalities can enact more specific laws that may come with separate fines or the possibility of arrest. Surfside’s town code also includes language prohibiting people from congregating to block sidewalks but doesn’t deal specifically with issues like panhandling or sleeping in public.

“We have a right to protect our residents,” Danzinger said.

The town’s four other elected officials seemed to agree with the mayor’s approach, though they advised the town attorney to draft an ordinance carefully to try to avoid legal issues. Commissioner Nelly Velasquez raised concerns about the proposed ban on soap and shampoo at beachfront showers, but said the measures overall would “protect vulnerable residents, children and seniors.”

Some residents spoke in support of the efforts, saying they have felt intimidated by homeless people in the town or have seen people relieve themselves on the street.

“They haven’t done anything personally to me here, but it is a matter of time until they will,” one resident told the town commission.

Mixed views from businesses

Along Surfside’s commercial corridor on Harding Avenue, business owners said they often see the same few homeless people in the area. David Benrey, the owner of Street Kitchen, said he typically offers them food as long as they don’t bother his customers.

“It’s not a big issue for me,” he said.

At nearby Mendel’s Backyard BBQ, manager Melina Sosa said a woman defecated outside the restaurant late last year, and that she has called police on two other occasions when people were bothering patrons. Sosa said officers told her they had limited recourse beyond telling the people to move along.

“We want to help, but at the same time, you don’t know if they’re going to come back or how often,” she said. “I would say it could be a lot better.”

Other cities in Miami-Dade have grappled with how to address the homeless population — including Miami, which has faced criticism for banning homeless encampments and unpermitted food distributions. But Book said the Surfside proposals would “criminalize homelessness in a way that no other community in South Florida has been so regressively involved with trying to do.”

Book, the Homeless Trust chair, said he wished Danzinger had reached out to him to discuss the matter before moving forward. And he said it was frustrating to see Surfside in particular consider such a punitive approach, given that it is one of the few cities in Miami-Dade that does not impose a 1% food and beverage tax to help fund the Homeless Trust.

“This is a ‘screw you,’ “ Book said.

Danzinger did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Book’s remarks.

He also couldn’t be reached for comment on what specifically prompted his proposals, or whether he intends for the bans to carry criminal penalties.

Police chief: ‘We don’t run people out of town’

Acting Surfside Police Chief John Healy said the town’s officers generally try to exercise discretion before making arrests and offer the homeless support.

When officers saw a homeless man lying on a sidewalk near the beach earlier this week, he said, they asked him to move from the public right-of-way and let him go on his way.

“In Surfside, we don’t run people out of town,” Healy said. “We don’t do anything like that.”

Municipal laws that disproportionately affect the homeless, including bans on sleeping or camping in public, have become more common nationwide, according to a 2019 report from the National Homelessness Law Center. Some city efforts to ban panhandling, meanwhile, have been struck down by courts in recent years on First Amendment grounds, including in downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The report argues that, while local laws may temporarily remove homeless people from the street in a given community, they don’t improve public safety or reduce homelessness — and can exacerbate the problem by imposing fines and arrests that make it harder for people to find housing or a job.

“Cities say, ‘Fine, we’ll make it someone else’s problem,’ ” said Schnably, the University of Miami professor. “Any claim of anything else accomplished makes no sense.”

Source: Yahoo News