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The Beacon Investigates | County law permits businesses to treat the homeless with indifference

February 2, 2017

West Palm Beach, Fla. - Palm Beach Atlantic University encourages students to treat people they encounter in public with love and dignity. 


Unfortunately, a follow-up investigation reveals local laws and businesses may not share in such lofty spiritual aim.


Last week, The Beacon disclosed an incident at Field of Greens restaurant in downtown West Palm Beach involving PBA students in their attempt to help a homeless man. 


As detailed by the reporter, restaurant management discouraged PBA freshman Tabatha Le and her friends from inviting Rodney, who was sleeping along the sidewalk, to dine with them.


In this follow up investigation, The Beacon discovered that the entire confrontation was, in fact, within the law. While Le and other witnesses felt such business practice bordered on discriminatory practice, Palm Beach County ordinance sees it in a different light.


Above: The place where PBA students originally found homeless man, Rodney, lying on the sidewalk and asked him to lunch.


Through a public record search, Palm Beach County Code of Ordinance § 15-57 outlines “unlawful discriminatory practice in public accommodations,” which includes restaurants. The law states that the owner, employee, manager, (etc.) of such businesses cannot discriminate against any individual on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, familial status, sexual orientation, age, marital status, or gender identity or expression.


Despite such specifications, county ordinance protects Field of Greens and all restaurants with similar business policies as detailed in the initial investigation. That's because homelessness in Palm Beach County is considered a “housing status.” Put simply, the law does not explicitly permit discrimination towards the homeless. But because of the absence of the clarifier, it does not prevent it either.


According to LegalMatch content manager and legal editor Peter Clarke, “patrons lacking adequate hygiene (eg. excess dirt, extreme body odor, etc.) can be refused service.” So, the incident at Field of Greens was within a legal concept known to most as, “the right to refuse service”.


That is why the Florida Homelessness Action Coalition and their supporters have drafted a “Bill of Rights for Citizens Experiencing Homelessness.” Advocates plan to introduce it in the upcoming 2017 legislative session.


This crowd-funded effort, available online, outlines the intent to “create a society where all people, regardless of their housing status, are valued and treated with dignity and respect and where their human, legal, and civil rights are protected; and to be guided by the principle that basic shelter is a human right.”


The proposed bill further outlines what this effort would entail; including the “right to enjoy public space”. With reference to “without discrimination on the basis of…housing status”, and ensuring “the right to communicate to others in…reasonable ways”, as clarified under “The Right to Social Exchange”, this "Bill of Rights" would have advocated on behalf of Rodney to dine with PBA students at Field of Greens.


If this proposal were to become state law, Florida would join Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois. These states already have versions of a Homeless Bill of Rights, along with efforts of California, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Delaware who have similar proposed legislation under consideration.


This Homeless Bill of Rights could solve some of the biggest problems that Clint, (who prefered not to give a last name), a ten year worker for the REACH program at the Pat Reeves Village homeless shelter in West Palm Beach, sees as the biggest obstacle for the homeless.


“The main problem that homeless people deal with is finding child care and jobs,” says Clint.  “The Right to Employment Fairness” and the “Right to Equal Treatment” included within the proposed bill could help remedy issues that Clint witnesses on a daily basis.


This type of effort works to include the homeless population within the rest of the community. In a follow-up interview with Rodney, he told The Beacon that outreach from caring groups and individuals towards people like him has a positive impact that is lasting.


“I have to spend my time away from people,” Rodney explains. “I find places where I won’t run into people because no one wants me around and I’ll go days without talking to someone. The hardest part is the isolation.”


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