Florida homeless prepare for law banning tents, sleeping in public

For Stephanie Bennett, home is a tent in the woods.

It's there, near a set of railroad tracks in the city of Tampa, that the 41-year-old has lived for the last eight years. Not too long ago, an outreach worker and the cashier at the nearby 7-Eleven told her about a new law coming, one that would make it illegal for her to live in her tent. hard shell roof top tent canada

That legislation – "Unauthorized Public Camping and Public Sleeping" (HB 1365) – was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis last week. DeSantis is expected to sign it soon. It will prohibit local municipalities from allowing people to camp or sleep on public property.

The legislation will require municipalities to designate a specific public space for camping and sleeping with approval from the Florida Department of Children and Families that includes security, behavioral health services and bathrooms with running water.

If they don't, the bill allows businesses and residents to hold the local government accountable in court.

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Its proponents view it through the lens of compassionate conservatism, pointing to decades of funding for efforts that they say haven't helped reduce the homeless population by attacking the root causes, including poverty, mental health and substance use disorder.

Critics, meantime, have said the legislation will create forced internment camps, shoving homeless people into fenced villages where they will be neither seen nor heard.

"When they told me about this law, I went and told everybody," Bennett said. "I was like, 'Yo, they're trying to pass a law where they're going to make it illegal for us to put our tents up. We're not going to be able to have tents, and they're going to force us into their camps.' "

Across Florida, under the looming threat of potential civil suits, local governments and what are called "continuums of care" are looking at ways to comply – with varying responses.

One county is looking to open an overnight shelter. A city in the Panhandle is hiring a consultant. And a rural continuum of care with one of the highest unsheltered rates in the country has heard nothing from the six counties that it serves.

While the state upped the budget for the continuums of care, the regional bodies that coordinate housing and services for homeless people, advocates for the homeless are wondering if counties and cities will pay for the expansion in services. If there are any.

Bennett believes the support she would get at the camp won't be enough to help her.

"What is keeping you homeless, that is the issue that they need to address. The why, not the aftermath," Bennett said. "Don't just leave us this way, find out why, and help us."

Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, said that was the intent of the bill, to connect the chronically homeless with mental health treatment. He called the new initiative "the Florida model."

"That was the way we tried to address that issue and making sure there was accountability, while also not putting the burden exclusively on the person who's sleeping on the side street," said Garrison, who is in line to be Florida House speaker in 2026-28.

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counted 18,815 year-round shelter beds in emergency, safe haven and transitional housing in Florida. That same year, the state had 30,756 people experiencing homelessness, with 15,482 people unsheltered.

The part of the law that requires municipalities to create designated camp sites is only triggered if there aren't enough shelter beds.

"The current status quo of living under an underpass, or on your own somewhere without even a modicum of sanitation, or security, or access to mental health or substance abuse services just isn't going to work," Garrison said.

Megan Sarmento, an outreach program manager for the Florida Harm Reduction Collective in Tampa, said many of the homeless people she works with mistrust DCF, the agency in charge of monitoring the encampments. Some of them have lost their children or have been incarcerated because of DCF, she said.

"I feel like these services need to be voluntary rather than kind of forced, because as soon as somebody feels forced to do something, especially among this population that's found this independence and freedom, then that linkage to care doesn't work," she said.

While the legislation requires 24-hour security at the encampment, Bennett predicted unsheltered people would rather head to a jail cell than risk their safety and camp with people they don't know.

The bill includes an exemption for "fiscally constrained" counties from the requirements of the public camping area if the county can show compliance would "result in fiscal hardship."

Bennett doesn't trust the state or local governments will be able to monitor the camp and offer the support she needs. Bennett said she has untreated bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. She said she would need wrap-around services, including self-sufficient skills training and someone to help her sign up for disability.

But "it's like the system has ADD (attention deficit disorder)," she said. "We've gotten started, and we've gotten through one step, but then oh, whoops, the system's dropped us. By the time they pick us back up again, we've got to start over, or we've got some other issue."

There were 29 "fiscally constrained" counties in Florida in 2023, according to the state's Department of Revenue. Most are rural and in north Florida or the interior of South Florida.

Brenda Gray and a staff of five other people lead the continuum of care for six of those counties. Gray, the executive director of Heartland Coalition for the Homeless, coordinates services for the homeless in DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee counties.

In 2023, the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found Hardee, Hendry and Highlands counties had the second-highest rate of homelessness in the nation.

Homelessness includes couch surfing, families doubling up in the same apartment, sleeping in a car, living in a hotel or staying at the shelter. But a little over 88% of all the homeless people in these three counties are unsheltered, according to the report.

Gray said the funding the agency gets to help people find housing is from federal and state dollars. None of the counties contributed to the $723,463 the agency got in grants in fiscal year 2023 (July 1-June 30).

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In 2022, the number of homeless people in all six counties totaled 609.

A few weeks ago, Gray had a single mother with children looking for a place to live. She could put them in a hotel for a week, but that could be over $1,000.

"The mother just can't ... find a place she can afford," Gray said. "I know nine times out of 10 the landlord's going to say 'I want first, last and security.' OK, I can handle that, but what happens after that? She can probably only afford one more month, so she's in that place for four months, and then she's back homeless again."

She added: "That's crazy. What do you do?"

In the early days of the legislative session that ended March 8, Gray asked each county she serves what they were planning on doing. Her organization does not have land for a designated encampment site. As of earlier this week, she had not heard back from any of the six counties, she said.

A spokesperson for Highlands County said the county started community-wide discussions with local stakeholders last fall and will continue them throughout the spring to address the increasing unhoused population, including expanding access to mental health care.

The City of Orlando is currently looking at facilities for an emergency overnight shelter, said spokesperson Ashley Papagni.

The city will be partnering with the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, the lead agency designated by the federal government to address homelessness for Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, according to its website.

The shelter would not require criminal background checks, credit checks or income verification, program participation, sobriety or identification, Papagni said, and it would be open 24 hours a day so residents do not have to leave during the day.

In February, the Homeless Services Network's CEO said she was concerned about the future law and worried about who would pay for the new encampments.

"And without funding available, many jurisdictions are not going to have a viable way to fulfill those requirements,” Martha Are told WMFE, the NPR affiliate in Central Florida. “If they do not have the funding to make one of these locations happen, they will find themselves in a position where all they can do is relocate people out of the community — or arrest them.”

Leon County has opted not to change the county's operations and policies even with the new law, said Mathieu Cavell, a spokesperson with the county.

In Pensacola, the city is hiring "housing first" homelessness consultant Jon DeCarmine, the executive director of GRACE Marketplace in Gainesville.

GRACE Marketplace is a low-barrier shelter and support services center that works to help people experiencing homelessness find a permanent place to live.

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"How we also adhere to this new legislation is going to have to be a collective effort between us in the county, but we're not going to be able to do that alone," Pensacola Mayor D.C. Reeves said this month.

The state has allocated $30 million – $10 million more than the previous year – for continuums of care to prepare for the law. Garrison calls the state funding an "investment" into new state standards.

Some local governments have turned a "blind eye" to the homeless and "shrug their shoulders," he said.

"We're not going to tell you necessarily how to do it, but we're going to say no matter what, these public spaces have to be protected," Garrison said.

At a press conference last week, DeSantis said "the Florida model" is a way to keep cities from looking like San Francisco, a city that he had previously said "collapsed because of leftist policies."

He hinted at the potential of the state helping local governments with mental health support, but stood firm against permitting cities and counties to let people live in public parks and on streets.

"We're basically saying in the state of Florida, a municipality or county is just simply not allowed to embrace San Francisco-style policies," DeSantis said last Friday.

"You can make other choices, but you can't make that choice. Why? Because every time that choice has been made, the result has been destructive."

roof top tent and annex Ana Goñi-Lessan, state watchdog reporter for the USA TODAY Network – Florida, can be reached at