What can be done about homelessness and panhandling?
Q: Why doesn’t the City pass a law outlawing panhandling?
Homelessness, transients, and panhandling are chronic issues facing every metropolitan city and urban center in Florida and throughout the nation. These are multi-faceted problems with no simple solutions. The following Frequently Asked Questions addresses some of the most common concerns, legal issues, what cities can and can't do, what is being done, and how you can help.
Q: Can the police enforce laws against panhandling in specific locations such as downtown, freeway on- and off-ramps, medians, storefronts, banks, and ATMs?
- A: Numerous court cases have determined that panhandling is a free speech right, protected by the First Amendment. Ordinances against general panhandling in many cities have been struck down, and cities have been held financially liable for damages. Some ordinances prohibiting aggressive panhandling are under challenge if they do not properly focus on conduct, rather than the status of the person, and show a reasonable relationship between the prohibition and the conduct being regulated. The City and County do have targeted bans on certain types of solicitation/panhandling activities and the City Police Department actively enforces the laws, especially within the downtown corridor.
Q: The City has an anti-camping ordinance? Why are the homeless allowed to set up tent camps alongside roads, trails, and freeway off-ramps, in parks, and in vacant lots.
- A: Panhandling, other than aggressive panhandling, is a constitutionally protected right. However, the City adopted an ordinance that prohibits panhandling in some specific areas and instances as a matter of public safety, consistent with court rulings. This includes the areas of banks, ATMs, medians and actions such as the solicitation of drivers entering or exiting their vehicles in a parking lot. Panhandling is also prohibited, with some exemptions, in any public parking lot or structure between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Florida Vehicle Code also prohibits soliciting on freeway on- and off-ramps, and Palm Beach County has an ordinance that prohibits panhandling in the street. In all cases, an officer must view a violation to issue a citation.
Q: Why does it take so long to eliminate homeless encampments once they are reported?
- A: Court rulings have held that when enforcing camping ordinances, cities must be able to identify that there is an available place to sleep before issuing citations. If a bed is available and the person is unwilling to accept it, officers may cite them. Officers may require violators to move off public property even if they can’t cite them. This can be a lengthy process. If they have a lot of personal belongings, federal court rulings require officers to give them the opportunity to take the belongings with them. West Palm Beach park officials and the Police Department do not allow for the setting up of tents for camping within City Parks, and they work to get them taken down when camp sites are seen or reported. When on private property, officers need the property owners to make the decision to have trespassers removed and cover costs of cleanup. In areas under other agency jurisdiction (such as Palm Beach County, Florida Department of Transportation, etc.), officers need approval from those agencies.
Q: Can the City make it illegal to give money to the homeless?
- A: Police have limited resources and prioritize all calls for service and projects. Case law requires officers to give transients due process to remove their personal belongings. That includes posting a courtesy “72-Hour Notice” to vacate the location. This gives adequate time for the removal of personal belongings. If police must remove personal property, then found property laws require officers to collect, inventory and hold the property securely for 90 days. Cities have been held liable for damages when they fail to comply with the court’s due process requirements.
Q: I see homeless people breaking the law (buying, selling, using drugs; vandalizing property or defecating; aggressively panhandling), but when I report it the police don’t do anything.
- A: The City cannot make it illegal to give money. However, the City is informing citizens through public service announcements and social media on the most effective ways to give money for homelessness programs and how to deal with panhandling.
Q: Is the problem a shortage of police officers?
- A: West Palm Beach Police will always respond and hold people accountable when individuals are breaking the law. However, every call is prioritized and responded to, based on its priority. In addition, while police can make felony arrests based on witness statements, evidence and an investigation, the law requires that an officer witness a misdemeanor before issuing a citation. Citizens may make a Citizen’s Arrest based on illegal behavior they observe that falls within the elements of a misdemeanor crime, but many residents are unwilling to do so. In such cases, in the absence of an outstanding warrant or other circumstances, officers may only counsel the individuals regarding the law to encourage compliance.
Q: Is the problem worse in West Palm Beach? Other cities don’t have this problem. Is it because those cities have tougher laws? Better enforcement?
- A: We can always benefit from more police officers, and the City has added officers to the department in each of the past several years. It should be noted, however, that being homeless is not a crime, and we will never be able to arrest our way out of homelessness. The City is supplementing its law enforcement efforts with programs that help redirect the homeless towards mental health and substance abuse programs along with permanent housing solutions.
Q: Are other cities busing their transients to West Palm Beach? Why don’t we put the transients on a bus and send them back?
- A: In frequent discussions with chiefs of police and other law enforcement agencies in surrounding areas and throughout the state, they, too, are facing an increase in their homeless population. It should be noted that the City’s last homeless point-in-time count held in January of 2018 saw a slight decrease in the number of homeless counted.
- Climate, the availability of services, public spaces and the relative safety of the community all play a part in attracting homeless to West Palm Beach and other larger cities in South Florida. The state and national increase in the use of opiates and heroin have also played a role in the numbers of homeless, as has the high cost of housing and low supply of affordable housing options.
- We have not found a city that has done anything more substantive than what West Palm Beach is doing to address the issue. The West Palm Beach Police Department, West Palm Beach Department of Housing and Community Development along with other City departments, the County and non-profit agencies are instituting new programs, laws and policies that recognize the need to address the homeless problems that surface within the City.
Q: What mental health services are available for those who are homeless because of mental illness or addiction? Why can’t the homeless be forced to take their medications or undergo treatment?
- A: We are in regular communication with the chiefs of all the surrounding agencies and have no reason to believe other cities are busing transients, who have no connection to West Palm Beach, into the City. Individuals cannot be forced to leave against their will. If an individual has been found to be ‘stranded’ in our city and may be subjected to being victimized or becoming homeless, resources are available, if they want it, to assist them to reunite with their family. This is done once the proper “proof of residency” vetting process has been verified and the family member’s identity has been confirmed. The City, through its “Homeward Bound” program, assists dozens of homeless every year in getting to other parts of the state or country where they can receive housing and other support from relatives or friends.
Q: What can West Palm Beach residents do to address the problem of homelessness?
- A: Legally, no one can be forced to take prescription medication or receive treatment. We can only attempt to offer appropriate services to those want help and want to better their quality of life. Connecting them to services is not something that happens overnight. It takes a lengthy process of building trust with the person suffering from behavioral health issues, and collaborating with other organizations such as local social service providers, and Behavioral Health providers. The City has a Homeless Peer Outreach Team program through the non-profit agency The Lord’s Place that provides daily outreach, mental health and referral services to the homeless. The City, through its Department of Housing and Community Development, is also looking at potentially adding psychiatric services as part of the Peer Outreach Team, which would allow for on-the-street prescription and medication services that could help stabilize an individual diagnosed with mental illness.
- A: The City of West Palm Beach encourages the citizens and businesses to participate in the Real Change Movement. Residents are asked to not provide money or any other goods of value directly to panhandlers, which only encourages more panhandling. Residents who wish to contribute to help the homeless are asked to donate to the bright orange meters within the downtown district or to established service providers. In many cases transients use the money they solicit on substance abuse. There are many programs throughout Palm Beach County that offer food, clothing and other needs for the homeless who can also provide other services such as behavioral health, substance abuse treatment and supportive housing that are much more effective in getting someone off the streets. For more information visit www.realchangemovementwpb.org and http://www.homelesscoalitionpbc.org.
Residents are also encouraged to report all suspicious or illegal behavior to police or downtown security immediately and to provide police with as complete and accurate a description as possible. This information assists the police in determining how to best deploy resources. Residents should also be willing to cooperate when they witness or are a victim of low-level offenses so that those responsible will be held accountable.
Business owners and managers should work with the West Palm Beach Police Department to implement “target hardening
” strategies to secure their businesses against many of the issues associated with transients. Target hardening strategies can include locking trash bins and gates; avoiding the feeding of the homeless; and installing adequate lighting.