Sarasota has been called the "meanest city" by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Now, advocates say there is proof that police officers in Sarasota are unfairly targeting the homeless.
"Data obtained from the clerk of the court supports the fact that the city has escalated the war on the homeless in the past several months," said Michael Barfield, with the Sarasota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU says it has uncovered computer messages that show contempt and disrespect toward the homeless from Sarasota police officers. In one, which was sent between officers, police refer to themselves as "bum hunters."
Another message reads ‘I'm the bum hunter tonight son!!!' " And another joked about dressing up as a "bum" with wig and a bottle of rum.
Homeless people we spoke with say it's disrespectful.
"We're not bums, we're not vagrants, we are homeless," one person said, who didn't give her name.
The ACLU is currently in the middle of a class action lawsuit against the city. It claims the city is using its trespass ordinance to single out homeless people. An arrest earlier this month made headlines when a homeless man was taken into custody for charging his cell phone at Gillespie Park.
He was charged with "theft of utilities," and his case was thrown out. But it was already too late -- he lost his job because he didn't have the money to get out of jail.
Homeless man jailed, loses job, after charging cell phone
"As I walk by the sculpture here on city hall called Nobody's Listening, I realize if you're poor and homeless in this community, it's true," Martin said.
Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin says this is nothing more than a fishing expedition by the ACLU. He says the legal chairman for Sarasota's ACLU chapter has a history of misrepresenting the truth, and add that Sarasota's homeless programs are actually drawing many homeless to the city.
"There are many millions of dollars that are raised here every year to address and deal with the homeless situation," Barwin said. "In fact, it's probably why we have a disproportionate share of homeless, because the word of the good programs here has spread."
Barwin says he was not given advance notice about the ACLU's findings, and that he didn't find out about Tuesday's press conference until ten minutes before it happened. He says he will investigate the claims made by the organization.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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