While driving to a classical music concert in downtown Miami the other night, I was struck by the dramatic sight of dozens of homeless men lying on a sidewalk, huddled under dirty blankets, a few blocks from the upscale concert site.
The homeless congregate there each night to be near the Camillus House emergency shelter, where the lucky ones will get one of 32 beds.
In Florida, homelessness is not limited to Miami, of course, but is manifested in every city, big and small, as well as in rural areas. One estimate says there are 86,000 homeless people in Florida and 9,000 available shelter beds. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that close to 3.5 million people -- 39 percent of whom are children -- experience homelessness for some period of time every year.
The Miami sidewalk where the homeless congregate is a short walking distance from the magnificent American Airlines Arena, where the Miami Heat basketball team plays before well-to-do fans.
And if a Florida senator has his way, they will soon find sleeping quarters in the Heat’s air-conditioned “Triple A” Arena.
A 24-year-old Florida law, it turns out, requires professional sports teams that accept taxpayer money to build their stadiums and arenas -- including, among others, the Heat, the Orlando Magic, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Jacksonville Jaguars -- to provide shelter to the homeless on nights without games.
This give-back is in exchange for receiving about $2 million per year from the taxpayers, supposedly to increase economic investment and “improve the quality of life” throughout Florida. Up to now those contributions to professional sports teams have totaled $271.5 million.
Now comes Republican State Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton electrical contractor and president pro tempore of the Florida Senate. He’s proposed a new law – Senate Bill 816 -- to require enforcement of the 1988 law. And he wants teams that have not operated homeless shelters on non-event nights to refund millions of dollars to the state treasury. The first of several committees to review his bill -- comprised of six Republicans and two Democrats -- approved it unanimously.
Bennett doesn’t stop there. If a homeless shelter still isn’t housed in these sporting venues after next January, fines will be imposed against the team -- and the county in which the facility is located. The fine will equal 150 percent of the value of their state assistance each month.
The bill faces stops in more committees, a journey it won’t likely complete before the session ends. And a platoon of lobbyists is likely exercising First Amendment rights to tell every Florida legislator what a wild and crazy guy Mike Bennett is.
But Bennett makes a good point. It is unacceptable for a privileged group to flout the law in a civilized society. Better that homeless people use these facilities on off nights than sleep out on the streets. If janitors can clean up after tens of thousands of fans after a home game, they can certainly clean up after a small number of homeless persons who spend the night.
Let professional sports teams in Florida be on notice. Their free lunch may be coming to an end.
Angel Castillo, Jr., a former reporter and editor for the New York Times and The Miami Herald, practices employment law in Miami. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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