Pensacola moves to eliminate homeless 'blanket ban'

2:39 PM, Feb 14, 2014   |    comments
Stosh Szczechowich unpacks a sack lunch, provided by Sean’s Outpost homeless outreach program, at his camp under the Pensacola Bay Bridge recently. (Photo: Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal)
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PENSACOLA, Florida (PNJ/USA TODAY) -- City Council took a first step toward abolishing a law that makes it a crime for a homeless person to sleep with a blanket on city property.

The vote Thursday to repeal the so-called "blanket ban" was unanimous. However, the proposal still will have to pass a second reading later this month before becoming law.

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Before the vote, local civil rights lawyer Alistair McKenzie, who spoke out against the ban when it was passed into law last year, displayed a stack of critical news articles to council members. McKenzie said that the stated intent of the law's architects - to protect the city's image and aesthetics - had backfired.

"This is what Pensacola now looks like to the outside world," he said.

For nearly an hour members of the audience, including founders of internationally renowned homeless outreach Sean's Outpost, told the council the law was inhumane, a violation of residents' basic human rights and disastrous to the city's reputation.

McKenzie also reminded the council that the ban was only one in a series of restrictions placed on the city's homeless population last year.

Along with the ban, the council enacted three other ordinances that made it illegal for homeless to wash or shave in public restrooms, relieve themselves on public property or ask for money.

"People still can't wash their faces in public restrooms," McKenzie said. "I want to implore with you for your humanity, your Christianity, whatever sense of morals that you have, that you eliminate all of these ordinances."

The council did not heed McKenzie's request. However, Councilman Charles Bare, who voted against the ordinances last year, did move to eliminate the city's prohibition on tents and other temporary structures on public property.

"This ordinance is a cop-out," Bare said of the bans. "What this says is that we don't have another solution (to homelessness), so we're just going to make it illegal."

Bare received a standing ovation for his motion, but the audience's elation turned quickly to outrage when the motion failed.

The council also established a task force to seek more lasting solutions to the city's homeless epidemic.

Following the vote, McKenzie had harsh words for those councilmembers who voted against the tent motion.

"I am ashamed of this council," he said. "And I hope it costs you your jobs."

Mike Kimberl, of Sean's Outpost, promised councilmembers that the issue would not go away.

"We're not gonna stop," he said. "We're gonna keep coming, and we're also really, really good - as y'all have noticed - at making this world news."

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