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Thursday, July 8, 2021

City to appoint attorney in lawsuit filed by Ocala homeless men, women

The city of Ocala is looking to choose legal representation for a lawsuit filed by homeless men and women who say its panhandling laws are unconstitutional.

The matter will come before the Ocala City Council during their next meeting on Tuesday, June 15. City council members will decide whether or not to use City Attorney Patrick Gilligan’s office or hire outside counsel to represent Ocala in the lawsuit, which was filed by the Southern Legal Counsel and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of six individuals “experiencing poverty” and homelessness for extended periods of time.

The lawsuit challenges two municipal ordinances enacted by the City of Ocala that restrict the plaintiffs’ “ability to request charity from fellow residents,” according to the complaint filed with the U.S. Middle District Court of Florida. It alleges that the ordinances unfairly put the homeless “in jail for the content of their speech,” violating free speech and due process.

According to the complaint, many of the plaintiffs have disabilities and are unable to work.

One of the plaintiffs, Roger Luebke, had lived in Ocala for 16 years and faced homelessness until July 2020, when he received a donated trailer in Marion County, outside of city limits. Due to a disability, he cannot work a traditional job, but recently began receiving disability benefits that cover his food and basic necessities, but not all of his living expenses.

Luebke used to ask for charity and was repeatedly arrested during his time battling homelessness. According to the complaint, Luebke lived in constant fear of being arrested and prosecuted if he should ask residents of the City for “aid in the form of money or other charitable assistance.”

Luebke has been arrested five times and spent a total of 158 nights in Marion County Jail. He has been assessed a total of $3,889.50 in court costs, fees, and fines for arrests under the challenged ordinances.

The other five plaintiffs have similar stories.

The challenged ordinances prohibit roadway solicitations and panhandling in various public places. The plaintiffs allege that streets, sidewalks, medians, and parks are public forums which “are areas traditionally open for free speech.”

The complaint is clear in its delineation between the ordinances that apply to traditional public forums and those that regulate private property, which it does not challenge.

Like many cities around the nation, homelessness has been a constant issue brought before the Ocala City Council.

Earlier this year, council members voted against designating an outdoor space at Interfaith Emergency Services as a shelter.

According to a case management report filed with the court, the lawsuit could potentially go to trial by November 2022.