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Tallahassee lawyer fights for the rights of the homeless.

It's against the law to fall asleep on the beach in Brevard County--if it's later than 10 p.m. or earlier than 5 a.m. Other local ordinances around Florida deal with eating, sitting, and walking, making it difficult to sleep, dress, or fix meal.

Just being homeless can be a crime.

Tallahassee lawyer Jane Shaeffer isn't willing to just sit by and wring her hands. She wants to do something constructive.

Passionate about protecting the civil rights of homeless people, Shaeffer invites others to join her in the newly created Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness in Florida, part of the Bar's Public Interest Law Section.

"Why not take the clout of The Florida Bar and put it to the good of people who don't have anything, for the public good?" asks Shaeffer, who has been active on the board of directors of a Tallahassee homeless shelter for 17 years.

"Criminalizing homelessness seems to be a pastime for Floridians, and many of our communities are actively involved in NIMBY (not in my back yard) disputes. Attorneys can help. Homeless people are human beings like you and me. Alot of people are one paycheck away from being homeless. The majority have issues with alcoholism and drug abuse, generally stemming from mental illness. It's the treatment of mentally ill people once they become homeless that bothers us. Their civil rights are trampled every day," Shaeffer says.

"This country is arich country. Why can't everyone have the basics: food, shelter, and clothing? Like we have a right to vote, why can't we have a right to a safe place to sleep? That might sound socialistic. And maybe it

She views lawyers as having special talents and education to take a lead in social justice issues. And the need in Florida is huge.

In April, the National Coalition for the Homeless cited Florida as the eighth most dangerous state in the country-with Gainesville, Hollywood, and Tampa the scenes for hate crimes and violence against homeless people. Nationally, from 19992002, there have been 212 hate crimes against people experiencing homelessness, all committed by non-homeless perpetrators. The victims ranged from a 4-month-old baby to a 74-year-old man, and the crimes involved being harassed, kicked, set on fire, beaten to death, and even decapitated.

Lately, the national news has been filled with riveting new ways to exploit the vulnerability of people without homes.

To get a laugh and make a buck, enterprising videographers sold films of homeless men being pelted with rocks, beating each other up for beer money.

Then there's the unsavory quartet in Chicago recently charged as part of an insurance scam operation of breaking the limbs of homeless people with baseball bats, faking car accidents, and collecting thousands in insurance settlements, while tossing token dollars to the victims with nowhere to sleep.

Tom Pierce, executive director of the Office on Homelessness, applauds Shaeffer's efforts to enlist lawyers, advocates, and technicians of the law, to come up with better ideas.

"I would like to see if lawyers can engage to help work with local law enforcement officials to help draft model ordinances to address the issues of loitering and panhandling, without making it a crime to be homeless and on the street," Pierce said.

"We need, to stem the tide of new local laws that are making it more difficult for those who are homeless and do not have a place to be during the day, from being arrested and jailed simply for being in the parks, or on the sidewalks downtown. Obviously, if there is criminal activity being engaged in, the law enforcement community has to act. But we need to make sure that there are alternatives in the community to serve the homeless before we make the jails our shelter of last resort."

Gerry Glynn, chair of PILS, said the section has helped the homeless through legal services lawyers, but this is the first effort to create a committee to focus on homelessness and offer continuing legal education credits.

"Unfortunately, homelessness is not going away in our society. PILS was excited when this group of lawyers organized under our banner. We hope many other lawyers will join in this effort to provide services to this underserved population," Glynn said.

Tallahassee lawyer Mary Charlotte McCall faces legal issues of homelessness in her work in dependency court, and she has already signed up.

"I think it's essential," she said of the new committee. "Homeless folks have many legal problems and uniquely legal problems. And it will benefit us to have a cadre of people around the state who can share what they learn with each other."

If you are interested in joining the Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness in Florida or would like more information, contact Jane Shaeffer by e-mail at JR, write to her at 2600 Bantry Bay Drive, Tallahassee 32309, or call her at (850) 8935222. The dues are $25 a year, and membership is open to both lawyers and non lawyers. The first meeting will be held September 5 during The Florida Bar General Meeting at the Airport Marriott in Tampa.

RELATED ARTICLE: Homelessness by the numbers

The statistics in Florida reveal the magnitude of homelessness, drive situations that ensnare children, too. On any given day in Florida, there are nearly 68,000 persons who have no home, according to a 2002 report, the latest numbers available from the State Office on Homelessness, within the Department of Children and Families. That is up 3.6 percent from 2001. There are not enough shelter beds to hold them all, with 8,661 emergency shelter beds and only room for 11,430 in transitional housing. Adult single males make up 41 percent of Florida's home les, families make up 38 percent, and children constitute 27 percent.

The medical conditions of Florida's homeless include 39 percent with substance abuse disorders, 24 percent with mental health disorders, 16 percent with a combination of substance abuse and mental health issues, 8 percent with AIDS/HIV, 14 percent with developmental disabilities, and 33 percent with primary health care problems.

And not all people without homes are without jobs.

Eighteen percent of homeless people in Florida have full-time jobs, 19-percent have part-time jobs, and 14 percent are veterans.
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Author:Pudlow, Jan
Publication:Florida Bar News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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