Groups challenge how Ocala treating homeless population

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Last week, the ACLU of Florida, Southern Legal Counsel and a local Ocala attorney filed a lawsuit against the city of Ocala stating that its treatment of its homeless population is unconstitutional.

The city has an ordinance against "open lodging," which means a person can be arrested for sleeping or resting in an open area. The lawsuit says the city has arrested hundreds of people for doing this.
We spoke with a lawyer from the ACLU who said this ordinance is violating the city's homeless population's constitutional rights.

"This is extremely upsetting," ACLU of Florida staff attorney Jacqueline Azis said. "These are individuals who need housing, who need services and if the city isn't going to help provide those services, the city can't arrest people for simply living and existing in public spaces."

The lawsuit lists three people in it who collectively spent 210 days in jail and were charged about $9,000 in fines.

"They have no option but to be in public spaces because they are homeless, and we hope the city will stop arbitrarily and unconstitutionally enforcing its open lodging ordinances [and] its trespass policies," Azis said.

We spoke to people who have businesses in and around downtown Ocala where many of the homeless people choose to sleep.

"It's been an ongoing problem for a long time," Hefner Plumbing owner Tim Hefner said. "Probably the last ten years."

Hefner has owner his plumbing business for 45 years and said that the city's homeless problem is affecting business.

"Sometimes the employees can't get down the street because there is so many of them and if I have any customers or anything like that, they're scared to come down the street." Hefner said.

The ACLU and the other attorneys are trying to find other homeless people who may have been arrested so that they can file a class action lawsuit.

We contacted the city's attorney about the lawsuit. We have not gotten a call back yet.