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Pensacola, Florida Mayor Ashton Hayward Now Supports Repeal of Homeless Blanket Ban

Much of Florida has been blasted with sub-freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. (Photo: Andrea Westmoreland)

Much of Florida has been blasted with sub-freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. (Photo: Andrea Westmoreland)

After “reflecting and praying,” the conservative mayor of Pensacola, Florida has reversed position and announced he will support the repeal of a controversial law that makes it a crime for homeless residents to sleep on public property with a blanket.

The Pensacola News Journal reports Mayor Ashton Hayward announced his about-face in an email message titled, “Blankets for Everyone: A Path Forward on Homelessness.”

Northern Florida has been experiencing an unusually cold and stormy winter, with a state of emergency recently declared due to severe winter weather. In addition to freezing rain and even snow, homeless residents had to deal with nighttime temperatures in the 20s.

The blanket ban, which was passed last summer by a city council vote of 6-3, effectively gave homeless Pensacolans “the option of choosing to freeze to death or going to jail,” according to Jason King of the local homeless outreach group Sean’s Outpost.

Other ordinances passed by the council have been blasted for targeting the homeless, including measures banning them from washing or shaving in public restrooms, relieving themselves on public property, or panhandling.

Mayor Hayward’s change of heart comes as many residents expressed their support for a repeal of the law. Councilwoman Sherri Myers, who voted against last year’s blanket ban, proposed a new ordinance to scrap the law, which critics say criminalizes poverty.

“They (homeless residents) could be peacefully sitting there, peacefully standing, [and] under this ordinance, they would be guilty of ‘aggressive’ panhandling,” Myers said of the blanket ban. “I believe this is a violation of the United States Constitution, the right to assemble, the right of freedom of association. I don’t believe that section of this ordinance is going to withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

“Two years ago, when the City Council first considered these ordinances at the request of the mayor, and hundreds of people showed up in protest, the city refused to listen, citing the ‘silent majority’ that wasn’t present,” local homeless advocate Nathan Monk wrote in an online petition on change.org.

“As this extreme freeze comes into the Panhandle, it will be illegal for the homeless to seek shelter from the cold. This is unconscionable, and our city leaders have refused to respond to reasonable requests for them to accommodate the homeless in any way,” the petition states.

As of Thursday evening, more than 14,000 people had signed the change.org petition.

Pensacola City Council members P.C. Wu, Andy Terhaar, Larry B. Johnson, Brian Spencer, Jewel Cannada-Wynn and Megan B. Pratt voted in favor of the controversial 2013 law. Myers, along with Charles Bare and Gerald Wingate, voted against it. Mayor Hayward was absent.

During last year’s debate of the ordinance, Bare noted that when he was an Army Civil Affairs Officer serving in Iraq, he helped people who were homeless or displaced as a result of the US-led invasion and occupation to find shelter and financial assistance. Bare pointed out the irony and hypocrisy of American taxpayers funding homeless services in a foreign country while treating homeless Americans as criminals. Someone in the public gallery said that under the proposed law, victims of the then-recent tornado that wiped out Moore, Oklahoma could be classified as “criminals.”

Local blogger Jeremy Bosso recounted a heated incident at the May, 2013 council meeting at which the ‘anti-homeless’ blanket ban was approved. In attendance were a group of Chinese journalists who had been conferred honorary citizenship of Pensacola. One of the journalists from the communist country asked to address the council with the assistance of a translator, and was “warmly welcomed by the council.”

The journalist, Jin Rah, expressed his gratitude for his honorary citizenship, praising the United States for its freedom before adding that he had “heard about some of the ordinances” that were being discussed that evening.

“If I may express some personal opinion, which might be unpopular,” Rah began before he was interrupted by Councilman Wu, who according to Jeremy Bosso interjected that, “actually, a greeting will be fine.”

Undaunted, Rah continued via his translator:

“I feel that, as an honorary citizen, I feel that to decide on this kind of issue by voting may not be entirely fair.”

Again, Wu cut in, saying in Mandarin, “Welcome, hello and goodbye. That’s it.”

The public gallery broke out in boos and gave Rah a standing ovation.

Speaking last Friday, Councilwoman Myers told the News Journal that she was “moved” by Mayor Hayward’s decision to support a repeal of the ban.

“I hope that his support will have some impact,” said Myers.

UPDATE: The Pensacola City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to strip the controversial law of the blanket ban. But critics lamented that other ordinances criminalizing poverty remained in effect.

“People still can’t wash their faces in public restrooms,” local civil rights attorney Alistair McKenzie said. “I want to implore with you for your humanity, your Christianity, whatever sense of morals that you have, that you eliminate all of these ordinances.”

Mike Kimberl of the outreach group Sean’s Outpost vowed to keep up the pressure on the council to repeal ordinances that criminalize the poor.

“We’re not gonna stop,” Kimberl pledged. “We’re gonna keep coming, and we’re also really, really good, as y’all have noticed, at making this world news.”

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