Advocacy groups sue city of Ocala for lodging ordinance

Published: Sep. 20, 2019 at 5:23 PM EDT
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The City of Ocala is facing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the city's "trespass and unlawful lodging" ordinance.

This legal action is being brought by three advocacy groups, representing more than 200 homeless people.

According to the complaint, this is an illegal ordinance that's resulted in one plaintiff spending 148 nights in jail and having to pay more than three-thousand dollars in fees.

The ACLU, Southern Legal Counsel and a pro bono attorney out of Ocala, have filed a lawsuit against the City of Ocala, claiming, the city's 'trespass and unlawful lodging' ordinance is attacking the homeless.

"Our main goal here is to change how cities are addressing homelessness. We don't think that people should be sleeping outside either but the solution is not putting people in jail, the solution is addressing why people are homeless and why people can't afford housing,” said Kirsten Anderson with Southern Legal Counsel.

Anderson has an issue with the ordinance, as she says, singling out the homeless.

"The ordinance on its face singles out homeless people for punishment and says that if you're sleeping and you say that you're homeless that alone is enough to get arrested,” she added.

To take a deeper look, the ordinance does state, that those who identify as homeless may not sleep or rest on private property, or under any structure without the permission of the owner.

Public property, including government buildings, parks, sidewalks, or benches are also off-limits to the homeless who intend to sleep.

But city officials say, this isn't to harm the homeless.

"The city doesn't care, that's the furthest thing from the truth,” said Ocala City Attorney Patrick Gilligan.

Merely sleeping in a place is not enough for a citation or an arrest, the ordinance also states.

There must be one or more indications of lodging, such as a tent or sleeping bag.

And while the city council would like to see a solution to homelessness, Gilligan said, the city must try to do so with a limited budget and something that works for all who call Ocala home.

"They're not the only citizens. We have citizens that are property owners and just do not want to see people just doing whatever they want, where they want and tolerate lawlessness, and the city isn't going to have the money to take care of them,” Gilligan added.

In the end, the ACLU hopes that the city will provide more adequate shelters and social services to the homeless population in Ocala.

However, Gilligan said that on a tight budget, efforting social services would be almost impossible financially.

The group has not officially served the city, but when they do the city will have 21 days to file a response.

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