City Council set to repeal blanket ban

February 13, 2014 – Following a flurry of media criticism, Pensacola City Council discussed an ordinance, proposed by Councilwoman Sherri Myers (see page 31-32 of the Agenda), to repeal a section of a “camping” ordinance that bans blankets, sleeping bags, and other bedding bedding materials – which posed a tremendous health and safety risk to the homeless, particularly because the temperatures had already reached the teens and twenties. Citizens had expressed their concerns about the series of ordinances to the City Council in December 2011, May 2013 and January 2014. In addition to the camping ordinance, a restroom ordinance made it illegal to wash, shave, prepare drink or food, or clean any piece of clothing in a public restroom, among other things. Another ordinance made it illegal to beg.

Note: In May 2013, the following Council members voted in favor of the controversial homeless ordinance(s): P.C. Wu, Andy Terhaar, Larry B. Johnson, Brian Spencer, Jewel Cannada-Wynn, Megan B. Pratt, whereas council members Sherri F. Myers, Charles Bare, Gerald Wingate opposed the ordinances.

Background: * Pensacola City Council Passes Controversial Homeless Ordinances * Freezing Temperatures: Requesting Pensacola City Council Repeal the “Blanket Ban” * Update – Requesting the Pensacola City Council Repeal the “Blanket Ban” (city considers repealing blanket ban)

After public comments (video), the Council voted unanimously in favor of Myers’ ordinance to repeal the blanket ban, and also voted unanimously to create a homelessness task force. Both measures still face a second reading and subsequent vote before taking effect. [Video on YouTube:]

Councilman Charles Bare, who opposed (video) the camping ordinance, proposed a motion to repeal the entire ordinance, to which he received a standing ovation. Bare said, “This ordinance is a cop-out…What this says is that we don’t have another solution [to homelessness], so we’re just going to make it illegal.” The motion failed, despite garnering a majority vote of council members present (4 to 3 in favor), due to a rule in Section 4.03, sub-section (c) of the City Charter requiring a majority of the existing membership (meaning 5 of the 9 council members). Megan B. Pratt and P.C. Wu were absent. Sherri Myers, Larry B. Johnson, Gerald Wingate, and Charles Bare voted in favor of Bare’s motion. Andy Terhaar, Jewel Cannada-Wynn and Brian Spencer opposed Bare’s motion.

Nathan Monk addressed the Council, saying that while he was pleased they were considering repealing the “blanket ban” portion of the “camping” ordinance, it was only a “band-aid.” He urged the Council to repeal all three ordinances. He also called on the Council to approve a proposed homeless task force, saying it was necessary to find real, lasting solutions to poverty. He said “I would like to thank the Mayor and his staff for responding to me and 14,000 of my closest friends.” Monk’s petition to repeal the ordinances had surpassed 15,000 signatures prior to the meeting. He continued, “I would like to thank Councilman Wingate, Bare and Myers for championing this all along. Everyone else, welcome…I think we’ve made some great success. Once we have our task force, I hope that we will make even bigger successes.”

Jeremy Bosso speaks to Pensacola City Council
Jeremy Bosso speaks to Pensacola City Council

Jeremy Bosso addressed the Council. “Good evening. I’m going to keep it a little short tonight…I just want to say this: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ That’s in our Declaration of Independence, in case you needed a reminder. The Fifth Amendment states, in part, that ‘…nor shall any person be…put in jeopardy of life or limb…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…’ The Fourteenth Amendment states, in part, states that ‘…No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process…’ The Florida Constitution echoes this. In Article 1, Section 2 under ‘Basic Rights,’ it states in part that ‘All natural persons…have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty.’ Article 1, Section 9 of the Florida Constitution, under, ‘Due process,’ states that ‘No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.’ And…the reason I’m mentioning the issues of Life and Liberty here is because I firmly believe that no one, no one, should have to choose between their Right to Life and their Right to Liberty. You shouldn’t be compelled to choose ‘should I defend my Right to Life by covering up and keeping warm, but risk my Liberty by going to jail.’ You should never be forced to choose which rights you have. Those rights are inalienable. They are given to us by our Creator and not by Government. And so I would like to speak in support of Councilwoman Myers amendment and I would also like to echo the concerns of others and please consider the other ordinances that were discussed as well. Thank you.”

Alistair McKenzie speaks to City Council

Alistair McKenzie speaks to City Council

Alistair McKenzie, a local civil rights attorney and vocal opponent of the series of anti-homeless ordinances, told the Council, “I am so glad that we have something positive on the agenda for tonight…unfortunately, what we really all care about is what Pensacola looks like.” He held up a stack of news articles critical of the City’s blanket ban, saying, “This is what Pensacola looks like to the outside world,” reading a dozen or so headlines. “I’m not gonna read them all. There’s a lot here…I am truly blessed and happy that hopefully the tide is changing tonight…what all these people don’t know is that this was a series of three ordinances that were passed at the same time. People still can’t wash their face in a bathroom because we have an ordinance that prohibits that…So I want to implore with you for your humanity, your Christianity, whatever sense of morality that you have, that you eliminate all of these ordinances, and make this place a safe place for everyone.” Later, as the amendment was being discussed, he said, “we did not expect that Nathan Monk, with his petition, would get 10-15 thousand signatures on it before this day came. And as a result, we have a massive change of heart from those of you who voted for these things in the first place…I don’t care what caused your change of heart. What matters is that we’re starting to get rid of this stuff…all it’s gonna take is another petition going online saying you can’t wash your face in the bathroom, and we’re gonna be sitting here again. What we need to do is get rid of these ordinances and…put a task force together to work together with the community and with the homeless outreach services here to start providing some beds. Because people don’t know that we don’t have permanent beds in this city. That’s why these laws are so terrible to begin with…I’m very hopeful we have a genuine change of heart here in the city of Pensacola. Let’s see how big that change of heart is and take it all the way.”

Jason King, the founder of Sean’s Outpost homeless outreach and Satoshi Forest, thanked Nathan Monk for his petition. He told the Council, “one of the things that keeps getting passed around about this blanket ordinance, and I talked with [Pensacola Police] Chief Simmons earlier, is that we haven’t had anyone arrested for having a blanket yet. As he said, he wouldn’t have the heart to do it. But we have had code enforcement officers steal blankets [more here] from homeless people. I’ve been there. I’ve  seen it happen. And I can’t think of anything worse on this planet than seeing someone freezing outside and saying ‘you have a blanket and that’s puts you in  violation of an ordinance and we’re gonna take that from you.’ And as Mr. McKenzie said, we have news articles about these things, and that’s how the outside world sees us.  That’s how they see Pensacola. And I think that’s an abomination. And I think as Mr. McKenzie said, this is a band-aid. I think that taking this little piece [the blanket ban] out of these ordinances is ridiculous. And I implore you guys to go the distance on this…and end all this criminalization of homelessness. Being homeless is not a crime. At our Special Magistrate hearing for Sean’s Outpost…the Special Magistrate actually codified that – being homeless is not a crime. There’s nothing in the code for that in the State of Florida, but there is in this City Council. You guys have functionally made homelessness illegal in the City of Pensacola. And you also can have a change of heart, like you are on this little thing with these blankets, giving someone the ability to stay warm. You could take it upon yourselves to take down all these other ordinances and make basic human rights legal here in Pensacola. I implore you guys to do that.” More on Satoshi Forest here.

Debra Carnley, a homeless woman, addressed the Council, and described some of the trials of being homeless. She said “Saturday night the police came out [to her camp] after dark and they did not announce themselves, they came through a wooded area and they started cutting my tarps and we were all told we had to leave. A lot of us have packed our stuff; we’re trying to leave. I found another place to go, by the help of the homeless. The homeless have helped me find another place to set up and someone to help watch me to be safe…This is a wonderful, wonderful city that helps the homeless. They feed the homeless, they cloth the homeless. The churches go above and beyond to help you. The organizations here go above and beyond to help the homeless. I think we need to look at…the progress that’s going to come.”

Robert Wingerter crochets a blanket for the homeless

Robert Wingerter crochets a blanket for the homeless

Robert Wingerter, Outreach Director at Helping Hands for New Hope, sat listening intently to the proceedings as he crocheted a blanket. When it was his turn to speak, he displayed a crocheted blanket, telling the Council, “I made this blanket…so I could give this to a homeless person, so they’d be warm…It’s sad to me, someone who’s been doing homeless outreach for over 10 years, that I can’t give this to somebody to keep them warm…I put love in this, to make it, so that they could stay warm. And if I give this to somebody, they could be arrested for having it. I think it’s very sad that we could allow that to happen. And these other ordinances are just like this, criminalizing people that have no way to be able to protect themselves. And we need to be human beings and think about protecting other people, because the protections of others’ human rights are important to all of us-I would hope.”

Mike Kimberl of the outreach group Sean’s Outpost also urged the council to repeal ordinances that criminalize the homeless. He said, “You know where I stand. I spoke  here  when these ordinances got passed and gave you all the statistics showing you that this was just ridiculous. Thank you for starting [with repealing the blanket ban], but this is not good enough. You need to abolish all of this. Later in the evening he said, “We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep coming, and we’re also really, really good, as y’all have noticed, at making this world news.” Indeed, the blanket ban was noted in numerous media outless.

City Attorney, Jim Messer, also had a few comments related to the “homeless” ordinances (video here), after most the crowd had filtered out of the chamber. He began, “I would preface my remarks by asking that Councilwoman Myers not beat me up, because I understand that we have professional differences and I certainly respect her opinion. Now I’ve talked before about the razor blade that I straddle when I’m compelled to represent both this council and the mayor. So, I didn’t write the Charter, but that’s the deal I’m stuck with. In that respect, I also represent the City of Pensacola. The City of Pensacola is a municipal corporation. That municipal corporation has y’all [the Council] as the Board of Directors, and you have the citizens of the City of Pensacola, that quite frankly I think have been treated a little unfairly tonight. So my comments are not going to be directed to the merits or demerits of the ordinances we’ve been discussing. It’s not my job to create policy. It’s not my job to create the ordinances. But I think it is part of my job to put this discussion into a historical context. And I would ask you all to remember the historical context within which those ordinances were passed, and where the City of Pensacola was at that time…Those ordinances, rightly or wrongfully were enacted as a response to the occupation of this city’s property by an ungovernable mob…called ‘Occupy Pensacola’.” He continued, “now setting aside the legitimacy of their First Amendment claims or their right to occupy public property claims, the fact of the matter is this city had very limited options to deal with, in fact, an ungovernable mob. Now we’ve litigated that case in state court. We’ve litigated that case in Federal District Court and…we’re currently in litigation at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals…What’s the practical impact? Well, the practical impact is that if that decision goes the other way, this city is subjected to probably seven-figure damages liability and high six-figures attorneys fees liabilities. So, in representing the City of Pensacola, I would impress upon you to please try and recall the historical context of these ordinances. The fact that the City was trying to regulate public land at a very ungovernable time in their history. And quite frankly I don’t think the City deserves all this vitriolic criticism based on the hyperbolic response of some people. So with that said, I’ll try to withdraw gracefully from the battlefield here without being too badly wounded at 8:45 at night.

Councilman Charles Bare replied, “I find it curious that you wait until the crowd is gone to make your comments,” as applause could be heard in the background.

Councilwoman Sherri Myers added, “I would like to address the City Attorneys characterization of the Occupy as an unruly mob, I think he said. That’s not the impression I got at all…When they were occupying the City grounds…I didn’t get the feeling that they were an unruly mob. I actually went there a few times and I did not observe anybody being unruly. I thought our police department did a superb job and had a good relationship with the Occupy movement. I thought our city handled it very well. And I do agree with you that these ordinances have, however, given the City a not-so-good reputation, but in terms of the Occupy event, I didn’t get the sense that it was unruly, and I thought that the city handled it very well. I’m sorry that these ordinances came out of that if indeed that’s why these ordinances were enacted. That may be an unconstitutional admission right there – if they were enacted to stifle the First Amendment rights of the citizens to petition the government for redress of grievances. So I just wanted to say that I have a different perspective on it than the City Attorney.”

Over several months, only two people from “Occupy Pensacola” were arrested for any crime. Dr. Melody Castro and Rev. David Burden were arrested Dec. 16, 2011, while standing on the green space near city hall. The alleged offense was misdemeanor “trespassing” on public property. Neither case resulted in a conviction. At one point the City evicted “Occupy” from the City Hall lawn, instead “allowing” them to use a “tiny triangle” on the public sidewalk as Judge Roger Vinson called it. The City then put up barricades to block use of the sidewalk, but removed them shortly after. The City of Pensacola filed a motion in the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida in attempt to recoup legal fees.

Here is a Video of the February 13, 2014 City Council meeting. You can select which section you wish to watch on the right-hand side. Comments related to the the three ordinances were made in the “Boyd Forum,” an open comment period (Nathan Monk at 0:25, Jason King at 2:10 and Alistair McKenzie at 8:40) and in the section titled “Item 8 (part 1 of 2).” (A few of the speakers were Nathan Monk at 3:10; Alistair McKenzie at 8:00; Mike Kimberl at 11:10; Jason King at 11:50; Robert Wingerter at 14:30; Debra Carnley at 30:00; Jeremy Bosso at 33:00)