He’s been homeless off and on for 20 years – about six years of which he spent in Orlando, Fla.
Sheptock spent nights in a pavilion run by the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. People could sleep on two-inch mats laid on a heated floor. But there wasn’t always enough space. So Sheptock was forced to spend some nights on the street.
The problem is that in Orlando and many other cities, it’s illegal to sleep in some public areas.
Some communities ban not only sleeping in public but also sitting or lying down in public, loitering, sleeping in vehicles and begging for food or money. Essentially, the laws can make it a crime to be homeless.
And they’re becoming more common, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
A recent report by the organization analyzed laws in 187 cities and found that more cities added bans on panhandling, camping and loitering since 2011.
“Oftentimes, these laws are passed as a myopic response to growing numbers of visibly homeless people,” Tristia Bauman, the reports’ primary author, said. “Cities want to move them out of sight because it’s bad for business.”
But many cities lack shelter space.
Continuums of Care, local groups that coordinate funding for housing and other services to homeless people, are responsible for tracking the local homeless population and the number of available shelter beds. In 2013, 62 percent of the groups reported more homeless people than shelter beds.
That’s how Sheptock, who became homeless after losing his job and is still homeless today, found himself sleeping outside.
When winter came, homeless people came from colder places to Orlando, taking up space in the pavilion. The pavilion has since been replaced by a men’s shelter.
“We’d get like 500 people down there and they’d fill every space,” Sheptock, now a homeless advocate in Washington, said. “So what’d they’d do is they’d charge you a dollar a night, and if you didn’t have a dollar there were like 15 slots for people to sleep if they volunteered to clean up. When those 15 slots were filled – if it wasn’t hypothermia, if it wasn’t 40 degrees or lower – then you actually just couldn’t come in.”
So he – and on at least one occasion, 20 other men – would have to sleep outside the shelter on the sidewalk.
But there’s a reason sitting or lying down on sidewalks and streets is prohibited in Orlando, Sgt. Lovetta Quinn-Henry, spokeswoman for the Orlando police, said, and it’s not to target homeless people.
“It creates an order and keeps everything for the better of everyone, so that everyone can enjoy the great weather,” Quinn-Henry said. “Everyone wants to jog or go somewhere in the city without tripping over people, so I can’t say that it’s just targeting a group of people.”
Still, these laws can make it harder for homeless people to get off the streets.
Homeless people are arrested then released – still with no place to live – with a criminal record and legal costs.
For Sheptock, once he was released from jail, he still had to sleep outside on occasion – leading to two more arrests.
“A criminal conviction, even for something as simple as sleeping outside, can prevent them from getting employment or necessary public benefits,” Bauman said.
People are often required to disclose any arrests or criminal convictions on job applications. Employers frequently run criminal background checks and may choose not to hire anyone with a criminal past. More than 60 cities and 12 states have recently passed laws forbidding employers from asking about arrests or convictions on job applications.
Criminal convictions can keep homeless people from finding housing, too.
Applicants for federally subsidized housing are required to disclose any criminal convictions, even those for minor or nonviolent crimes.
While the laws apply to everyone, David Pirtle, who was homeless for 2½ years, said he saw unequal enforcement of the laws in the cities where he’s lived.
“New York had laws about falling asleep on the subway,” he said. “Cops wouldn’t give a ticket to someone in a suit who had a hard day – just homeless people who were sleeping.”
Pirtle, 39, originally became homeless in Phoenix in 2004 after suffering a psychotic break, which caused him to lose his job and home. He moved to New York partly because of the criminalization laws in Arizona.
Tempe, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, had a sit-lie law, which is still in place. The ordinance prohibited sitting or lying on a public sidewalk, except on a bench or similar structure between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. and 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
“Downtown during the day you were not allowed to sit down anywhere,” he said. “They moved all the benches and made it illegal to sit on the sidewalk or on the curb. The penalty was like $500 or 30 days in jail just for sitting.”
But he found that New York’s laws weren’t much better. Pirtle came to New York in 2004 and lived there for about six months.
“I’ve been told by police, ‘You can’t sit here, you can’t lay down here, you can’t close your eyes here,” Pirtle said. “I think that’s a very common occurrence, even in cities that don’t have the type of criminalization measures that New York had at the time.”
Laws targeting homeless people are still a problem in the city, Justine Luongo, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society in New York, said.
One law restricts panhandling.
“Under [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani there was a very big push to arrest squeegee men, those who wash your windows and then ask for money,” Luongo said. “It hasn’t really changed. There’s a recent crackdown to make sure there’s no more squeegee men, and now no young people dancing on trains and then asking for donations.”
Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said laws like this don’t solve anything.
“If criminalization of the homeless could solve the problem of homelessness, it would have done so by now,” Stoops said about the laws that began to appear in the early 1980s. “We’re not going to end homelessness unless we deal with the root causes.”
One of the causes is the lack of affordable housing.
Research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that there is no state in the country where someone earning the minimum wage can afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. The U.S. has lost 10, 000 units of federal subsidized housing each year since the 1970s, and there are fewer shelter beds than homeless people in many cities.
Laws criminalizing homelessness are expensive for taxpayers.
The Utah Housing and Community Development Division found that the annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16, 670, while providing an apartment and a social worker cost $11, 000.
Utah has been able to reduce its rate of chronic homelessness by 74 percent since 2005 by providing housing.
A housing program got Pirtle off the streets. He was a part of a pilot program in Washington that provided homeless people with housing and then services as needed, after he got caught stealing an emergency blanket from the National Air and Space Museum. After getting an apartment, medication for his schizophrenia, a case manager and a psychiatrist, Pirtle said he is a different man than he was seven years ago.
“I used to be that person who was sitting on a park bench with a scraggly beard, dirty clothes, smelling like urine, talking to myself with a bag full of newspapers,” said Pirtle, who is now a speaker for the National Coalition for the Homeless. “The kind of person you’d cross the street to avoid – the kind of person I would have crossed the street to avoid before I became that person. Inside every single one of those people, even the ones who look the most far gone like I did, there’s someone like me trapped inside who just needs some help.”
Reach reporter Erin Bell at [email protected] or 202-326-9866. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.