The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the National Homelessness Law Center and the Southern Legal Counsel are warning the city of Pensacola that it could face legal trouble if the homeless camp under Interstate 110 is cleared without individual housing options in place.
The letter, which was sent to the City Council and mayor, comes as Council President Ann Hill is proposing extending a 90-day moratorium resolution for removing anyone from the Hollice T. Williams Park under the I-110 overpass.
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson has said that anyone camping under the overpass must leave by mid-January.
The council recently approved funding $1.5 million to local nonprofits to create additional shelter space, but Hill says those spaces will not be ready in time.
The council is set to vote on extending the resolution, which is non-binding, at its meeting Thursday night.
In their letter, the three legal groups said forcing people out of the camp without other housing units available risks violating the constitutional rights of the people in the camp and the most recent guidelines released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Moratorium extension: Will I-110 homeless camp get another 90-day reprieve? Pensacola council to vote Thursday
"We urge you to follow CDC guidance and controlling federal precedent and not conduct the potential closure and clearance of the Hollice T. Williams Park encampment unless individual housing units are available to displaced residents," the letter said.
Congregate shelters, the letter said, would not meet CDC guidelines because of the high risk of spreading COVID-19 in those spaces and the city should find a way to provide individual housing, such as hotel rooms, for each person.
The group said Pensacola could take advantage of funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering to local governments in response to the COVID-19 recovery efforts.
"These funds allow Pensacola to devote resources toward adequate housing options and away from policies and practices that criminalize, displace, and jeopardize the health and safety of unhoused residents," the letter said. "If Pensacola truly wishes to eradicate the need for encampments, it could do so by providing hotel rooms to all the current encampment residents, fully reimbursable by FEMA."
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If the city moved to clear the camp and confiscate property, that would also violate the Fourth Amendment under the Constitution, the letter said.
"… A city’s interest in keeping an area clean is not sufficient to render reasonable the deprivation of personal property," the letter said.
The council meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Florida ACLU warns of legal trouble if Pensacola homeless camp cleared