ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Atlantic Beach city commissioners voted unanimously Monday night in favor of a new ordinance that prohibits people from camping or sleeping in public areas of the city.
Administrators said the previous ordinance was not compliant with federal case law. Those who don’t comply with the new ordinance face a penalty of jailtime.
Police say people will first be asked to leave and given options of another place to go — like a shelter. But if beds are available and they refuse, they could face a misdemeanor charge and be placed under arrest.
“If there is not a place for that homeless person to go, a shelter. that arrest can’t be made,” explained Chief Victor Gualillo, with the Atlantic Beach Police Department. “That’s stated twice in the ordinance so that’s very clear.”
There are not any overnight shelters in the beaches community. The closest one is in downtown Jacksonville.
The commission also approved close to $3,000 to help organizations, like St Paul’s by the Sea Episcopal, operate their shelter during cold weather or storms.
“Certainly we know that making arrests is not a solution, because it clogs the system,” said Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser. “It does no good with misdemeanor crimes. They’re released, and they just move from one jurisdiction to the next.”
Some advocates, like Pastor Wellington Barlow, worry that the ordinance is too broad for interpretation.
“Anytime there’s discretion, especially at the hands of police officers, there are going to be some issues and circumstances under which the police officer’s words are going to be A and the citizen’s word is going to be B,” Barlow said.
Francisco Jimenez said he was homeless in nearby Jacksonville Beach for years and is upset to hear about the changes.
“We’re human,” Jimenez said. “These people, they’re hungry. They don’t have a place to live.”
He said he thinks there needs to be a long-term solution for many people who are struggling.
The police chief said their goal is not to arrest people, saying that is a last-case scenario.