By KARINA ELWOOD / The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
OCALA, Fla. (AP) — Diane Coleman drives past run-down motels, mom-and-pop cafes and car repair shops on the main drag of this north-central Florida city of about 60,000 people. At a stoplight, she pulls out her phone and searches through photos until she finds what she is looking for: a picture of a wrinkled man with a Mona Lisa smile.
Lynn Bertramsen is 70 and his white hair is neatly combed to the side, his face freshly shaved. His blue eyes stare kindly into the camera.
But this is hardly the image of Bertramsen the city of Ocala recognizes. In his 62 official mugshots, Bertramsen’s unkempt hair frames his scruffy face. In some shots his forehead bears bloody scabs. In others, his lips are turned down and his brow is furrowed.
Bertramsen lived on the streets of Ocala for 16 long years. In that time, he was arrested for trespassing — or “open lodging” — again and again. The cycle finally stopped when, in 2017, he met Coleman.
This project was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at The University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, in collaboration with the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
Coleman, a homeless outreach coordinator, picked up Bertramsen from jail and brought him to a motel where he still lives today. She checked on him regularly, brought him food and set him up to receive Social Security checks. He went to church with her family and spent Thanksgiving at her house.
Coleman wanted to figure out how she could help Bertramsen and the 600 or so homeless people who live in Ocala and surrounding Marion County. The city has adopted harsh policing policies and earned notoriety for the way it criminalizes homelessness.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty examined laws in America that punish people without a home and named Ocala in its “Hall of Shame” for enacting what it called “draconian” methods. The city is now facing a federal lawsuit that alleges Ocala’s policies are not only discriminatory but unconstitutional.
On some nights, Coleman jolts awake worrying about how to fix what she views as a broken system. In Bertramsen’s case, Coleman tracked his arrests over time and documented them in charts. She printed all 62 mugshots and compiled them into a hefty book. She attended town meetings to preach his story.
“He’s not been arrested since I’ve had him,” Coleman said. “So, what does that tell you? He was arrested over and over as a result of being homeless.”
Stories like Bertramsen’s are hardly uncommon. Open lodging laws and ordinances that bar homeless people from sleeping or resting on public and private property are prevalent across the country. But in Ocala, these types of laws have been strictly enforced in a city-sponsored police patrol. Labeled “Operation Street Sweeper” by the mayor, the city made more than 200 “quality-of-life” arrests between December 2018 and April 2019.
OPERATION STREET SWEEPER
The city first instituted an ordinance in 2002 that stated a person cannot “lodge” or take temporary shelter on private property without permission or while the location is not open and operating. In 2015, Ocala’s law was extended to cover public property as well, including roads and parks.
The city cracked down harder in September 2018, when Mayor Kent Guinn announced police would implement a “broken windows” strategy, meaning the elimination of visible signs of crime or waning quality of life.
Since the lodging ordinance was amended to include public property, police had issued close to 400 charges for violations of the ordinance as of May. Of those, 237 were filed after the vagrancy crackdown.
Individuals punished under the open lodging ordinance can face fines of $500 as well as additional court costs. And they can spend up to 60 days in jail.
Between January 2017 and May 2018, these individuals had been assessed more than $200,000 in court costs and fines.
Guinn declined to be interviewed, citing the pending federal lawsuit. “All I’m going to say is that I’m not going to have my city looking like L.A. or San Francisco,” he said. “If we lose this lawsuit, that’s what’s going to happen.”
In a column published in the Ocala Star Banner in September 2018, Guinn said “history has shown us that the lack of control of minor crime leads to greater crime levels.”
“I know what my eyes have shown me,” he wrote. “It’s time for us to make a stand against crime and take back our city!”
But homeless advocates decried Ocala’s actions as discriminatory and overly punitive, prompting advocates to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 200 homeless people living in the city. The lawsuit named three plaintiffs who together had been assessed over $9,000 in fines and court costs and had spent 210 days in jail.
The lawsuit alleges that Ocala’s scant supply of affordable housing and shelter beds fails to meet the city’s needs. The Ocala Housing Authority has only 186 public housing units and a waiting list of close to 1,000 families, according to the lawsuit. Another 2,000 people are on a waiting list for federal Section 8 vouchers.
The 2019 Housing Inventory Count found there are 305 year-round beds available to the homeless in Marion County.
That leaves homeless people with “no choice” but to rest or sleep on the streets, in the woods, in parks and in other outdoor spaces, the suit alleges.
Plaintiffs argued the city has occasionally barred them from visiting select public spaces by issuing them trespass warnings — infringing on their “constitutionally protected liberty.”
“Being homeless is not a crime,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jackie Azis said in an interview. “What the city of Ocala has done here suggests otherwise.”
Courtney Ramsey is a plaintiff in the suit. The first time she was arrested, she was asleep. That day, March 10, 2018, Ramsey was sentenced to 10 days in the Marion County jail and fined close to $1,000 under the open lodging ordinance.
She was rejected from two different shelters in Ocala — a church shelter denied her because she suffers from a seizure disorder. The Salvation Army generally allows people to stay for two weeks (they have to wait a year after their exit date to stay overnight again) and Ramsey had reached that limit. She was left with few alternatives.
In June 2018, she was arrested again, this time for sleeping near a business. She was sentenced to three days in jail and fined over $300. That fall, she was arrested again. And again a few weeks later. And again, in November and in December.
As of September 2019, Ramsey had accumulated over $4,000 in fines and spent 50 days in jail.
Southern Legal Counsel Attorney Chelsea Dunn said criminalization of homelessness has spiraling effects. “It undermines your ability to get back on your feet, to get a job, to be able to afford an apartment,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot of collateral consequences that come out of criminalizing homelessness that actually undermine any sort of positive solutions.”
Patrick McArdle, another of the three plaintiffs, accumulated a total of $3,690.50 in fines and other costs and spent 148 days in jail from 10 arrests for open lodging, according to the lawsuit. During Operation Street Sweeper, McArdle was stopped by the Ocala police at least four times.
Similarly, the third plaintiff, Anthony Cummings, was arrested for open lodging on three occasions. He only spent 12 nights in the county jail, but still racked up a total of $1,220 in fines and other costs. Cummings was stopped by Ocala police at least three times during Operation Street Sweeper.
Ocala Police Department spokesman Corie Byrd said the open lodging ordinance is not unique. But in Ocala, she said, it is strictly enforced.
The crackdown, Byrd said, came after local business and private property owners complained about homeless people sleeping on their properties. She said Ocala police do not consider status or wealth when making arrests.
“We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place with what we’re doing,” Byrd said. “We are, at the end of the day, just trying to do our job.”
This project was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at The University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, in collaboration with the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. It was reported by Karina Elwood. For more on this story, see https://homeless.cnsmaryland.org/ or email email@example.com.