OKEECHOBEE — The number of homeless in the city parks was again the topic of conversation at the city council meeting on Nov. 17.
Setting hours of operation for the parks was discussed as a possible solution. Okeechobee City Police Chief Bob Peterson said they cannot keep the homeless from using the parks, because they have as much right to be there as anyone else. If they are doing something illegal, they can stop that, he explained. In fact, City Attorney John Fumero explained the city has to be cautious because there have been court cases siding with the homeless, because the homeless have to sleep somewhere, they have to relieve themselves somewhere. There have been cases where bathing in a public space was considered a human necessity. Unless there are available shelters in the area, people have to be allowed to do some of these human functions, he explained.
The possibility of allowing a shelter to be built was brought up. Business owner, Dave Feltenberger offered to donate property, supplies and labor to put up a homeless shelter. His idea was to put up something open that law enforcement could easily see inside so it would not have to be staffed. It would have running water and bathroom facilities so the homeless would have a place to use the bathroom and clean up.
“He’s trying to solve this problem, and we’re up here like ... ‘eh’ ... I don’t want to be like that,” said Keefe.
Chief Peterson said one big problem with building this homeless camp would be that word would spread throughout the homeless community and more people would come to Okeechobee.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Fumero. He went on to explain that if Feltenberger creates the shelter, word will get out there is a shelter in Okeechobee. “We can get shelter. There are good people there. Then more will come. That’s what’s happening in California, San Francisco. You’ve all heard about it. It’s because there are so many programs there. There’s money. There’s food,” he said.
“There’s soup kitchens on every corner,” said Councilwoman Monica Clark.
Montes de Oca said he has reached out to County Administrator Robbie Chartier about the situation, and they are discussing ways to help these people. He said he does not want the citizens of Okeechobee to think they don’t want to help, because it is their desire to help. They just want to go about it in the best way for everyone involved.
At this time, the closest homeless shelter is in Highlands County.
No action was taken on park hours of operation. It was left in the hands of Chief Peterson.