Last Saturday members of several local activist groups convened in Clearwater to protest recent laws passed by the city targeting the homeless. The only problem was that no homeless individuals were present at the event.
The City Council has passed laws making it illegal to sit on the sidewalk and camp overnight and increased the penalty for soliciting to up to 60 days in jail.
Homeless advocates claim this is direct targeting of the homeless, saying that if a “regular”-looking person was to act in such a way there there wouldn't be any issue. They also say it gives police carte blanche to get homeless individuals off the street.
The meeting drew about 20 or so people to Clearwater’s Coachman Park from a few local social justice groups, mainly Food Not Bombs chapters from across the Bay area and members of Occupy Tampa. Though food was served, the event mainly turned into a folk-punk performance and general hangout.
Signs heralded the upcoming anniversary of the intervention in Afghanistan as well as broad Occupy-influenced slogans. Many present were aware of the lack of homeless and began discussing why that might be at a general assembly meeting.
The consensus among activists was that the police were involved somehow in discouraging the homeless from attending. Another theory was the fact that other feedings happen on Saturdays as well. Some present questioned the state of inaction among the activist community - that many are willing to be part of large-scale protests and marches on broad “reformist” topics such as economic inequality and war, but aren't as excited about smaller local issues.
The groups seemed somewhat dispirited by the event and (as with everything online) seem to still be arguing on the event's Facebook page about what should have been done and the disappointing results.
There was consensus on the importance of the issue, however. Reverend Bruce Wright of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign feels that Florida is going down a road that ignores the plight of the homeless, pointing to the increase in strict anti-homeless laws in cities such as Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Orlando.
“Cities are passing ordinances that are anti-poor and anti-homeless. It’s gotta stop, people have got to make a stand somewhere…why I’m here is because it being not just a campaign issue, but a personal issue. I’ve struggle with homelessness myself. I feel like it’s high time people get together and speak together.”
Dr. David Morris is a Provost fellow at the University of South Florida and a member of Awake Pinellas, a progressive advocacy group. Morris acknowledged the modest turnout, but said he was glad that some members of the media were present.
“To be brutally honest, these are groups that are a lot of young people and a lot of people who might not be the most organized…but no, I’m very happy with the turnout.”
Morris feels that the protest groups have their hearts in the right place, especially since they are dealing with an issue that’s not really touched by either side of the political spectrum.
“In particular this in an issue that there’s very little broad support for, for obvious reasons. There’s no political constituency for it. The people who are willing to take it on deserve a lot of support because there’s no real benefit to the people who are supporting this cause….they have nothing to gain from this, as opposed to almost everything else that has a political constituency that someone can court and turn into a voting bloc.”
There also is something to the overall culture of Florida that causes less sympathy for the homeless, Morris feels, saying that it’s not just a tourist issue but a more underlying attitude.
“It’s not just politics, though, they call Florida the “meanest state” and that’s for a reason. It’s not always about power or ideas. Sometimes it’s about the fact that people have trouble with the idea that they owe anything to another person just because they’re another person.”
The groups present discussed the necessity for future events to raise awareness, though at press time there haven’t been any new announcements.