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Florida Town That Banned Blankets For The Homeless Reverses Course

By Alex Leichenger

"Florida Town That Banned Blankets For The Homeless Reverses Course"

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Gwen Alvin, Rick Schwartz

CREDIT: AP

A Florida town is attempting to repeal its ban on homeless people using blankets and other means of shelter and comfort.

The Pensacola City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to upend what became known as the “blanket ban,” and pending a second vote later this month the ban will be repealed, the Pensacola News-Journal reports. The 2013 law made it illegal to sleep “out-of-doors…adjacent to or inside a tent or sleeping bag, or atop and/or covered by materials such as a bedroll, cardboard, newspapers, or inside some form of temporary shelter.” The initiative referred to homelessness as “camping,” a benign term that minimizes the plight of people lacking reliable access to food and shelter.

Yet after a torrent of critical press coverage and a Change.org petition, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward reversed his previous support for the ordinance and urged the council to amend it “after reflecting and praying on this issue.” Hayward tweeted a picture of himself and his wife supporting a blanket drive for the homeless earlier in the day and posted a photo to Facebook announcing the Council’s vote. Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers, an original opponent of the ordinance, brought forward the proposal to amend it.

The Council did not overturn other restrictions on the homeless in Pensacola. Homeless people are still forbidden from washing or shaving in public restrooms and relieving themselves or requesting money in public, according to the News-Journal. While it left those restrictions in place, the Council voted to establish a task force to identify and address issues of homelessness in Pensacola. The city is the largest in Escambia County, where the Florida Council on Homelessness’ 2013 report found that 830 people are homeless, a jump of nearly 300 from 2012. Many of those people are chronically homeless, veterans, suffering from mental illness, or victims of domestic violence, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The “blanket ban” is just one example of how cities nationwide are choosing to criminalize homelessness rather than grapple with the systemic issues abetting it. Another county in Florida spent over five million dollars to jail homeless people. Osceola County, which is near Orlando, devoted more economic resources to arrests for “quality-of-life-offenses” than it would have required to provide housing. Columbia, South Carolina has threatened to arrest homeless people for congregating in public and wants to charge high fees to charities that feed the homeless. St. Louis, Los Angeles, Raleigh, and Harrisburg have all considered or passed measures that make it harder to help the homeless. Pensacola Councilman Charles Bare assessed the nature of such initiatives by lambasting his own city’s criminalization of homelessness.

“This ordinance is a cop-out,” Bare said. “What this says is that we don’t have another solution, so we’re just going to make [homelessness] illegal.”

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