As Cellular pitches tenting ordinance, Pensacola wrestles with authorized threats over clearing an interstate campground

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As Mobile begins investigating a possible camping ordinance, officials in nearby Pensacola are cleaning up a homeless camp where some organizations are threatening legal action against the city.

The city is giving those living in a homeless camp in a park below Instate 110 until the end of this month to evict.

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The decision comes after the Pensacola City Council declined to extend a moratorium on the December evictions. Earlier in February 2021, the council voted on a moratorium on evictions and then approved three extensions – on April 22, July 15 and September 23.

“The City will make every effort to ensure that all actions related to Homeless Camp I-110 comply with state and federal laws,” said Kaycee Lagarde, spokeswoman for the City of Pensacola.

Her comment comes after Florida’s ACLU, the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC) and Southern Legal Counsel sent warning letters to city officials to close the camp without adequate alternative housing available.

The question is whether Pensacola’s actions would violate anyone’s constitutional rights, as outlined in recent federal court rulings in cases against local governments and their enforcement actions against the homeless. Advocates of the homeless often point to an appeals court ruling in a case against Boise, Idaho, in which a judge ruled that a city could not enforce its camping ordinance if there were not enough alternative shelters available for the homeless.

Lagarde said she believes the city of Pensacola is prepared.

“While the status of available shelters can change daily, the City of Pensacola believes that based on our discussions with local homeless shelters and nonprofit organizations, there are adequate resources available for individuals who choose to go to shelter.” said Lagarde.

She said the Pensacola City Council is allocating $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to help tackle homelessness and that will create more shelters in the coming months. An additional $425,000 in ARPA funds will go to the Lotus Campaign, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that seeks housing for the homeless in Pensacola.

“The city continues to work with local organizations to connect homeless people to shelters and other available resources so we can work towards the smoothest possible transition for everyone living in the I-110 camp,” Lagarde said.

Pensacola City Council President Ann Hill said she is confident the city is doing everything it can to avoid a lawsuit and is concerned the new housing won’t be ready before the end of the month, when the eviction occurs.

A homeless encampment at Hollice T. Williams Park under the I-110 overpass in Pensacola, Fla. as pictured Sunday, January 23, 2022. The City of Pensacola is ordering all camp residents to vacate the park before January 31, 2022 (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Large numbers of people remained in the camp on Sunday, despite signs around the park advising they must leave the park by 5:00 p.m. on January 31. The notice indicates that “No Camping” signs would be put up in the coming weeks. According to the city’s announcement, improvements to the park are planned, including the construction of a new skate park.

Hill was one of two councilors who voted in December in a failed attempt to extend the moratorium on evictions for a fourth time.

“I know there are several high court decisions that say you can’t evict people from public property if you don’t have a place to put them,” Hill said. “That’s something the council has been working on by providing rooms and accommodation. But yes, it is a problem.”

Hill said the reason for authorizing the first moratorium on evictions was the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about homeless people congregating in shelters where the virus can easily spread. She said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also recommended not evicting the homeless from outdoor camps during the pandemic.

“We kept that up until December,” she said.

Mobile City Councilman Ben Reynolds, who is issuing a camping ordinance in Mobile, said he was aware of the situation in Pensacola. He said it was “regrettable” that there were groups who threatened lawsuits against the city for wanting to “protect the health and safety of citizens.”

Reynolds said the proposed regulation in Mobile is not an attempt to address homelessness. He said it was a public safety issue and to address a minor issue near the highways where camps are being built.

“We want to solve the problem without going down that route,” Reynolds said of the situation in Pensacola. “I’m open to hearing what concerns we have about the homeless, but that’s a separate conversation that needs to be had. I think we have a public health concern (leading to the proposed Camping Regulations).”

Hill said City of Mobile officials should keep an eye on federal court cases, which play a large role in handling camps. She cited the February 2021 federal lawsuit against the city of Ocala, Fla., in which a federal judge ruled that officials could not enforce its camping ordinance because it did not have adequate alternative housing options for the homeless living there.

“They had people evicted from the public park and the driveway and were being sued by the same people who sent us our letter,” Hill said, citing the ACLU, NHLC and the Southern Legal Counsel. “You’re now paying $700,000 in legal fees.”