By Karina Elwood
Published June 29, 2020
OCALA, Fla. — Diane Coleman drives past run-down motels, mom-and-pop cafes and car repair shops on the main drag of this north-central Florida city of about 60,000 people. At a stoplight, she pulls out her phone and searches through myriad vacation and family photos until she finds what she is looking for: a picture of a wrinkled man with a Mona Lisa smile.
Lynn Bertramsen is 70 and his white hair is neatly combed to the side, his face freshly shaved. His blue eyes stare kindly into the camera.
But this is hardly the image of Bertramsen the city of Ocala recognizes. In his 62 official mugshots, Bertramsen appears to be a different man. Unkempt hair frames his scruffy face, and in some shots his forehead bears bloody scabs. In others, his lips are turned down and his brow is furrowed.
Bertramsen lived on the streets of Ocala for 16 long years. In that time, he was arrested for trespassing — or “open lodging” — again and again. The cycle finally stopped when, in 2017, he met Coleman.
Coleman, a homeless outreach coordinator, picked up Bertramsen from jail and brought him to a motel where he still lives today. She checked on him regularly, brought him food and set him up to receive Social Security checks. He went to church with her family and spent Thanksgiving at her house.
Coleman wanted to figure out how she could help Bertramsen and the 600 or so homeless people who live in Ocala and surrounding Marion County. Ocala has adopted harsh policing policies and earned notoriety for the way it criminalizes homelessness.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty examined laws in America that punish people without a home and named Ocala in its “Hall of Shame” for enacting what it called “draconian” methods. The city is now facing a federal lawsuit that alleges Ocala’s policies are not only discriminatory but unconstitutional.
On some nights, Coleman jolts awake worrying about how to fix what she views as a broken system. In Bertramsen’s case, Coleman tracked his arrests over time and documented them in charts. She printed all 62 mugshots and compiled them into a hefty book. She attended town meetings to preach his story.
“He’s not been arrested since I’ve had him,” Coleman said. “So, what does that tell you? He was arrested over and over as a result of being homeless.”
Stories like Bertramsen’s are hardly uncommon. Open lodging laws and ordinances that bar homeless people from sleeping or resting on public and private property are prevalent across the country. But in Ocala, these types of laws have been strictly enforced in a city-sponsored police patrol. Labeled “Operation Street Sweeper” by the mayor, the city made more than 200 “quality-of-life” arrests between December 2018 and April 2019.
Operation Street Sweeper
American cities and counties have tackled homelessness in a wide variety of ways. Just 45 minutes north of Ocala lies Gainesville, which has taken a gentler approach. But Ocala’s approach has been to crack down.
The city first instituted an ordinance in 2002 that stated a person cannot “lodge” or take temporary shelter on private property without permission or while the location is not open and operating. In 2015, Ocala’s law was extended to cover public property as well, including roads and parks.
The city cracked down harder in September 2018, when Mayor Kent Guinn announced police would implement a “broken windows” strategy, meaning the elimination of visible signs of crime or waning quality of life.
Since the lodging ordinance was amended to include public property, police have issued close to 400 charges for violations of the ordinance, as of May. Of those, 237 were filed after the vagrancy crackdown.
Individuals punished under the open lodging ordinance can face fines of $500 as well as additional court costs. And they can spend up to 60 days in jail.
Between January 2017 and May 2018, these individuals had been assessed more than $200,000 in court costs and fines.
Guinn declined to be interviewed, citing the pending federal lawsuit.
“All I’m going to say is that I’m not going to have my city looking like L.A. or San Francisco,” Guinn said. “If we lose this lawsuit, that’s what’s going to happen.”
In a column published in the Ocala Star Banner in September 2018, Guinn defended his tough approach, saying that “history has shown us that the lack of control of minor crime leads to greater crime levels.”
“I know what my eyes have shown me,” he wrote. “Time and time again, I’ve seen where an individual arrested for one crime was found to be involved in other crimes. … It’s time for us to make a stand against crime and take back our city!”
But homeless advocates decried Ocala’s actions as discriminatory and overly punitive, prompting advocates to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 200 homeless people living in the city. The lawsuit named three plaintiffs who together had been assessed over $9,000 in fines and court costs and had spent 210 days in jail.
The lawsuit alleges that Ocala’s scant supply of affordable housing and shelter beds fails to meet the city’s needs. The Ocala Housing Authority has only 186 public housing units and a waiting list of close to 1,000 families, according to the lawsuit. Another 2,000 people are on a waiting list for federal Section 8 vouchers.
The 2019 Housing Inventory Count found there are 305 year-round beds available to the homeless in Marion County.
That leaves homeless people with “no choice” but to rest or sleep on the streets, in the woods, in parks and in other outdoor spaces, the suit alleges.
Plaintiffs argued the city has occasionally barred them from visiting select public spaces by issuing them trespass warnings — infringing on their “constitutionally protected liberty.”
“Being homeless is not a crime,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jackie Azis said in an interview. “What the city of Ocala has done here suggests otherwise.”
Courtney Ramsey is a plaintiff in the suit. The first time she was arrested, she was asleep. That day, March 10, 2018, Ramsey was sentenced to 10 days in the Marion County jail and fined close to $1,000 under the open lodging ordinance.
She was rejected from two different shelters in Ocala — a church shelter denied her because she suffers from a seizure disorder. The Salvation Army generally allows people to stay for two weeks (they have to wait a year after their exit date to stay overnight again) and Ramsey had reached that limit. She was left with few alternatives.
In June 2018, she was arrested again, this time for sleeping near a business. She was sentenced to three days in jail and fined over $300. That fall, she was arrested again. And again a few weeks later. And again, in November and in December.
As of September 2019, Ramsey had accumulated over $4,000 in fines and spent 50 days in jail.
Southern Legal Counsel Attorney Chelsea Dunn said criminalization of homelessness has spiraling effects. Even when someone has access to services or employment, an arrest can be a huge setback, especially when they incur fines and court costs and sometimes even have their driver’s license suspended.
“It undermines your ability to get back on your feet, to get a job, to be able to afford an apartment,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot of collateral consequences that come out of criminalizing homelessness that actually undermine any sort of positive solutions.”
Patrick McArdle, one of the three plaintiffs, accumulated a total of $3,690.50 in fines and other costs and spent 148 days in jail from 10 arrests for open lodging, according to the lawsuit. During Operation Street Sweeper, McArdle was stopped by the Ocala police at least four times.
Similarly, the third plaintiff, Anthony Cummings, was arrested for open lodging on three occasions. He only spent 12 nights in the county jail, but still racked up a total of $1,220 in fines and other costs “because he is a homeless individual in Ocala who has no access to housing or indoor shelter year-round,” the suit alleges. Cummings was stopped by Ocala police at least three times during Operation Street Sweeper.
“Not only are the actions of the city unconstitutional,” Azis said, “but those practices that they are engaging in are counterproductive to any effort that could be addressing homelessness.”
Ocala Police Department spokesman Corie Byrd said the open lodging ordinance is not unique. But in Ocala, she said, it is strictly enforced.
The crackdown, Byrd said, came after local business and private property owners complained about homeless people sleeping on their properties. She said Ocala police do not consider status or wealth when making arrests.
“We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place with what we’re doing,” Byrd said. “We are, at the end of the day, just trying to do our job.”
Get Out of Jail Free
On this late winter day, Coleman, the homeless outreach coordinator, tucks her phone with the photo of Bertramsen back into her pocket. The American flag and silver cross dangling from the rearview mirror bounce as she pulls off the paved road. Soon, she is parked far enough into the woods that even the most observant passersby wouldn’t spot the community of blue tents and tarps.
When homeless people are not able to secure a place to sleep in a shelter, they often report experiencing emotional distress and fear as they scramble to find a place to rest that’s hidden from view. The ACLU lawsuit alleges that the struggle forces the homeless into places that are farther away from other homeless individuals, services and meals. The sole purpose of Ocala’s policing policies, the suit alleges, was to force the homeless to leave town. They end up in places like Bible Tower, an encampment that looks like a fort built by kids playing amid the trees.
From her trunk, Coleman grabs two blankets woven out of recycled plastic bags and follows a worn path to the entrance of the camp. She walks past lawn chairs and tarps propped up with found objects, past a rusty shopping cart and socks draped over a fallen tree.
Coleman is greeted with warm smiles. Lamar Nelson, 51, Renae Plummer, 46, and Rose Marie Mullins, 61, have gathered around a fire to keep warm on one of Florida’s rare brisk days.
Coleman begins inquiring about what they need.
“OK, I better make a list,” she says, pulling her phone back out. “I’ve got food, medicine, AA batteries, a box of food, blankets. Anything else? Candy. I’ll bring you some candy.”
Coleman used to work as an internal consultant for an Ocala hospital, but left when she saw there was a real problem brewing among Ocala’s homeless people. Under His Compassion, a ministry-based mission group, she applied for federal grants that included $60,000 a year for motel vouchers.
It eventually became a full-time job for Coleman. She was always mobile, going out on the streets and into the camps to connect with as many people as possible. She’d assess their needs to find out how she could help sustain them in the short term. Do they have any health problems? Do they need a tent? Do they need a blanket? Do they need food?
As Operation Street Sweeper pushed homeless people out of the city and farther away from services, Coleman sought out people by going into camps like Bible Tower.
“I’m not a case manager. I’m a business consultant,” Coleman says. “But it’s common sense. If you need this, then I need to get it for you.”
Most importantly, she always shares her contact information.
“I would give all the clients on the street or in the camps my card and say, ‘This is your get-out-of-jail-free card, because the cops will stop you,’ ” she says.
During Operation Street Sweeper, Coleman was often the first call a homeless person made. It was the difference between going to jail or sleeping on a motel bed.
But the grant money ran out in July 2019 and forced Coleman to go elsewhere. She continued her outreach work with Interfaith Emergency Services, a church-based homeless shelter and food pantry in Ocala. In November, Coleman became the manager of Interfaith’s Center for Life, which offers free medical services and prescriptions for uninsured and low-income clients. Despite her new role, she stays connected with the community by helping with outreach.
At Bible Tower, Coleman pulls out a pack of 305’s and hands one to each of the women around the fire. She lights the cigarettes dangling between their lips and gets deep into conversation on who’s left town or what camps have moved.
The encampment’s location in the woods is strictly by design. It sits next to a tall radio tower, hidden by trees on a privately owned plot. The three residents obtained permission to stay, as long as they kept it clean.
Before they settled here, they had bounced from one spot to another, sleeping wherever they could and risking a brush with police, arrest or getting kicked out. The remnants of Operation Street Sweeper and strict policing have left the homeless population afraid of where to lay their heads at night. People are moving away from the city, and deeper into the woods and county lands where they are less afraid of what might happen to them under the strict open lodging enforcement.
Some people say they’ve even left Ocala altogether, or leave the city on a nightly basis to find a place where they’re lawfully allowed to lie down and get some rest.
And the farther they go, the more invisible they become.
Elwood is from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication. Lead photo by UF’s Richard Shaw.