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Atlantic Beach city commission passes new law to address homelessness

The law will make police officers offer resources and shelter (if available) when interacting with homeless people.

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. — Atlantic Beach leaders are taking a step at addressing a key issue - homelessness.

The city commission passed a new ordinance, creating a list of steps for police to follow that could result in an arrest, as a last resort, for sleeping outside and blocking public spaces.

A lot of the attention has been on the narrative that police could arrest someone simply for being homeless.

However, they could already do that under the old law, it was just classified under loitering.

In fact, Police Chief Victor Gualillo made a point before the city commission voted Monday night to say they have not arrested any homeless people under the old law in at least the past three years.

The biggest change here is that police will now be required to share resources with homeless people they encounter and try to get them connected to help.

"A lot of these laws go against our civil liberties," said concerned citizen Jeff Gray before the meeting. "They're a slippery slope."

Gray makes a living as a tow-truck driver, traveling across the country.

Any time he feels the rights of homeless people are in question, he makes a point to stop and bust out a cardboard sign to express his concerns.

"We need to have compassion to help our homeless folks and homeless veterans, instead of passing laws to criminalize them," said Gray.

Former Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser has received plenty of concerns from people like Gray about a new ordinance banning people from sleeping or camping on any public streets, sidewalks, parks or beaches.

"Certainly we know making arrest is not a solution," said Glasser. "It clogs the system, it does no good for misdemeanor crimes. They are released, they come back to the beach, then they just move from one jurisdiction to the next."

Glasser says the new law will re-align Atlantic Beach's policy with the constitution and provide police officers more resources to help so they won't have to issue as many citations or make arrests.

"At least we're putting some tools in the hands of the officers to give them ways to help the homeless," said Chief Gualillo. "In fact, it's going to be part of our law now."

Police will be required to offer to take homeless people to a shelter if one is available. It's only if they refuse to move or go to a shelter that police can make an arrest.

If no shelter space is available, which happens frequently in Duval County, the officer cannot make an arrest or issue a citation.

The city commission passed the new law unanimously, with some admitting it isn't perfect.

"It's a hard one to fix, and we're not going to fix it tonight, but I think this at least steers the ship in the right direction," said Former City Commissioner Brittany Norris.

The beaches do not have an overnight shelter, so that means if police do offer to take them to a shelter and they say yes, they have to drive them all the way to downtown.

There are also 1100 shelter beds in Duval County, and at least 3400 hundred people who identify as homeless, according to Changing Homeless.

The commission agreed to give money to a church that opens the only overnight shelter when it's cold or during severe weather, but no plans are in place yet to bring a full time shelter to the beaches.

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