Down and out on Siesta Key

An article in a recent issue of a local weekly reported that a vagrant had been discovered squatting in a building on the north end of Siesta Key. The building, located at 5011 Ocean Blvd., had once been home to the Pelican Press. The article fretted that the squatter’s presence might signal an influx of homeless on to the key.

Prominent among Siesta Key’s “undocumented residents” is Lance Benjamin Loomis, 56, who is in a wheelchair. Even on Siesta Key, life on the streets is not without its dangers.  On the evening of Jan. 22, 1996, Lance was sitting in his wheelchair when he was struck by a motorist at the intersection of Siesta Drive and Norsota Way. He was airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

Lance recovered and returned “home” to Siesta Key. Most of the key’s residents and shop owners did not welcome him back. That attitude has since changed somewhat. One Siesta Village restaurateur invites him to dinner at 6 p.m. each evening, and some residents offer him cash and restaurant gift cards.

Just what is it about the homeless and the poor that make them such objects of derision?  British author George Orwell perhaps answered the question best when he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) that “the insuperable barrier to unity and harmony among the social classes is that the poor stink, and no amount of theorizing can deodorize them.”

If the homeless were polite, they would simply go away and leave the rest of us in peace. Unfortunately, not all homeless are so accommodating. Achieving this desired outcome, therefore, has required lawmakers and politicians to criminalize homelessness, vagrancy and begging.

This is not a new tactic. In the 19th century, England’s homeless were often charged with crimes under laws that carried the most severe penalties. By 1815, the “Bloody Code” listed no fewer than 225 crimes punishable by death. One of these was “begging with menace.” Another was stealing rabbits. Mindful of the dreadful punishment that awaited, juries frequently refused to find the accused guilty.

Until recently, Sarasota had used city trespass laws to remove the homeless from public land. When a court found a nearly identical St. Petersburg statute unconstitutional, the City Council in that city voted unanimously to amend its law. Please see http://sarasotanewsleader.com/forgive-us-our-trespasses/.

Last week The Sarasota News Leader reported that the police were increasingly “putting the arm” on downtown vagrants after Mayor Suzanne Atwell declared that she is uncomfortable going downtown because of the vagrants’ presence. Please see http://sarasotanewsleader.com/city-commission-deals-with-speed-bumps-vagrants-and-charter-amendment/ .

It is small wonder, therefore, that Sarasota does not enjoy an especially good national reputation with respect to its treatment of the homeless. In January 2006, the National Commission for the Homeless named Sarasota the “Meanest City for the Homeless,” ahead of Lawrence, Kan,; Little Rock, Ark.; Atlanta, Ga.; and Las Vegas, Nev. The city earned this unwanted honor as the result of having thrice passed anti-lodging laws, only a third of which were upheld by the courts. The ordinance outlawed camping/sleeping on public land, such as Five Points Park. The commission viewed this ordinance, plus the city’s single-minded determination to see it become law, as blatantly anti-homeless.

Former Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner proposed in November 2009 to broadcast classical music and grand opera into Five Points Park. He believed that the homeless were hyper-allergic to, say, Rachmaninoff’s Moment Musical in E Minor, Opus 16, No. 4, and fully expected that upon hearing the first notes of “decent” music, the homeless in the park would cover their ears and melt away, like vampires in sunlight. Wiser heads prevailed, however, and the mayor’s plan was not implemented.

In May 2011, the city banned smoking in public parks, but exempted a public-owned golf course because “so many golfers are smokers.” At the same time, all the benches were removed from Five Points Park lest the homeless sit, smoke or sleep on them. The benches are still gone. So are the homeless.

Supporters of these ordinances insist that they are vital to the protection of the homeless themselves. This highly dubious claim recalls the observation by Anatole France that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Lance Loomis is no stranger to local law enforcement. Since 1993, public records show he has had more than a dozen arrests and convictions for misdemeanors and felonies. In 2006, for example, Lance was arrested for having caused more than $7,000 in damage to an ATM, a third-degree felony. He was sentenced to 10 months in jail but was credited with 254 days for the time he was incarcerated before sentencing.

The following year he was convicted of a second-degree felony for threatening to bomb the Walmart store on Cattlemen Road and kill everybody in it. Lesser included charges were battery and petty theft. He received a 90-day jail sentence. Walmart employee witnesses told Sheriff’s deputies that Lance had arrived in a wheelchair but that he had walked around the store, stuffing $110.70-worth of Dinty Moore dinners and other merchandise into his backpack.

Siesta Key is not a nurturing environment for the homeless, nor does it aspire to become one. The key has no homeless shelter; the closest is 4 miles away. There are no public restrooms in the Village, only on the beaches. The public services on the key available to the homeless consist principally of lifeguards at the beaches, a Sheriff’s community liaison office and an EMS unit at the firehouse.

Still, the homeless populations of Sarasota and Manatee counties continue to grow, up 14,760 new cases in 2011 over 2010. The 2012 figures are not yet available. The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness reports that in July 2012, approximately 7,500 individuals were given assistance. Of these, about 1,730 were children; 1,300 were seniors (55+); and 390 were military veterans. For additional statistics on the local homeless, please see www.suncoastpartnership.com.

The problem of homelessness on Siesta Key is as complex as it is everywhere. Solutions are few and resources to fund them are fewer still. They are also expensive. In order to be successful, the course of treatment must cure a variety of symptoms. These include poverty, unemployment, abuse, criminality, physical illness, mental illness, addiction, etc.  The war on homelessness is winnable only by successfully treating one case at a time, an admittedly slow, costly and problematic process. Kicking this can down the road, however, and making the homeless invisible has become the less expensive, preferred quick fix.  At least you won’t be able to smell them.