SLC works to abolish unlawful and harmful practices that punish poverty. Homelessness is a form of extreme poverty experienced by tens of thousands of individuals and families in Florida. Many communities across the state punish homeless people for conduct essential to survival—such as sleeping, sitting, asking for money, owning personal property, and being present in public places. Since 2005, with the initial support of a two-year fellowship funded by the Equal Justice Works program, SLC has worked relentlessly to strike down unjust laws that punish people for being homeless, and promote the right to affordable housing, services, and opportunities that allow people to live with dignity.
Ft. Lauderdale Food Not Bombs, et al. v. City of Ft. Lauderdale, Case No. 0:15-cv-60185 (S.D. Fla., J. Zloch); 901 F.3d 1235 (11th Cir. 2018).
The City of Ft. Lauderdale made international news when it enacted an ordinance prohibiting outdoor food sharing, and arrested multiple people for sharing food in public places. We were retained by Ft. Lauderdale Food Not Bombs and individual members of the organization to file a federal suit challenging violations of their First Amendment rights. Food Not Bombs shares food as symbolic expression of its political message that society should direct its resources to fulfilling the human right to food instead of war. The court entered summary judgment for the City, deciding that Plaintiffs are not engaged in symbolic expressive conduct that is protected by the First Amendment. In reaching this finding, it relied on an Eleventh Circuit decision that was subsequently overruled en banc in First Vagabonds Church et al. v. City of Orlando, 610 F.3d 1274 (11th Cir. 2010), concerning the City of Orlando’s food sharing ordinance. We appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which ruled in a first impression case that sharing food is protected speech under the First Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit remanded to the Southern District for a determination on the merits of whether the ordinance at issue was unconstitutional under the principles the Eleventh Circuit set forth in its opinion. We filed supplemental briefing on the summary judgment motion, and await a ruling by S.D.
“Jailbirds in the Sunshine State: Defending Crimes of Homelessness” examines common laws used to arrest and jail homeless people for conduct essential to their survival and provides a detailed analysis of constitutional and other legal defenses specific to representing homeless clients charged with such crimes. The target audience for this training manual is public defenders and pro bono criminal defense lawyers in the state of Florida, although the manual contains information that may be useful to civil lawyers in bringing lawsuits to protect the rights of homeless clients. Because the target audience is lawyers in Florida, there is a primary focus on legal precedent from Florida and the Federal Eleventh Circuit. You can review a detailed description of the TABLE OF CONTENTS. The manual can be downloaded free of charge for legal service agencies, public defenders, or individuals experiencing homelessness. If you would like to download the manual, please click HERE. If you are not a legal service agency, public defender, or individual experiencing homelessness, you can download the manual for $10 HERE.
This manual is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Southern Legal Counsel is available to provide technical assistance and training in developing strategies, defenses, and constitutional challenges similar to the ones described in this manual. The criminalization of homelessness thrives on the expedient disposition of cases, ensuring the facts and legal grounds of such charges are never challenged in court. Our organization is ready to stand with you to convince communities that our clients need homes, not handcuffs. And if we cannot convince them, we will fight together to defend our clients’ rights in court.
Thank you to the Herb Block Foundation for a grant to develop this manual.
Below are a few selected cases. We have not listed all of the homeless individuals we have represented.
Catron v. City of St. Petersburg, 658 F.3d 1260 (11th Cir. 2011). To reduce the visibility of homelessness, many cities use trespass laws to ban homeless individuals from public places such as city parks. This often results in arrests of homeless people for mere physical presence in a public place open to other members of the public. SLC obtained a landmark court ruling from a federal appeals court that held that people have a constitutionally protected right to be in public places of their choosing. The court further ruled that if a government is going to take away that right, such as by issuing a trespass warning, then it must provide an opportunity for a hearing. This case has been widely cited by courts across the country to strike down similar trespass policies, including ones used against protestors such as during the Occupy movement. Co-counsel: National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty & Florida Institutional Legal Services.
Chase et al. v. City of Gainesville & Sheriff Stephen Oelrich, 2006 WL 3826983 (N.D. Fla., J. Mickle 2006) (permanent injunction); 2006 WL 2620260 (N.D. Fla., J. Mickle 2006) (preliminary injunction). Filed on behalf of three homeless individuals, this suit challenged under the First and Fourteenth Amendments two state statutes and a local ordinance which were being used to prohibit Plaintiffs and other homeless individuals from soliciting charitable donations on public sidewalks and streets. The court granted a preliminary injunction against the defendants and made a preliminary finding that the challenged statutes are facially unconstitutional. A settlement was reached in which the court entered a permanent injunction prohibiting enforcement of two statutes and a city ordinance that were being used to prohibit Plaintiffs and other homeless individuals from soliciting charitable donations on public sidewalks and streets. The Sheriff and the City also paid damages to the three Plaintiffs.
Booher v. Marion Cnty. & Sheriff Ed Dean (M.D. Fla., J. Hodges 2007). Filed on behalf of a homeless individual, this suit challenged a county ordinance that was being used by local law enforcement to prohibit homeless individuals from requesting charitable donations for personal use without first obtaining a permit. The suit challenged the ordinance under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and sought injunctive and declaratory relief and damages. The plaintiff had spent over 200 days in jail for six different incidents of holding a sign that says, "Homeless Vet God Bless." The court issued an order preliminarily enjoining enforcement of the Marion County ordinance during the pendency of the litigation, and finding that Plaintiff had established a substantial likelihood of success on his claims that the ordinance is facially unconstitutional. The County repealed the ordinance and a settlement was reached with the County paying damages to the Plaintiff. Co-counsel: Legal Advocacy Center of Central Florida.