Word is out on the street. Literally.
Jacksonville has earned the dubious reputation of being one of the best places in America to live on the street.
Officer Wally Butler of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office coordinates the High Intensity Trespass Zone (HITZ) program Downtown.
Butler said the combination of North Florida’s weather and the wide range of social services available makes Jacksonville a favored destination not only for people who genuinely need help, but for indigent criminals and substance abusers as well.
“In order to survive and do drugs, these people need a couple of things. They need food, they need clothing and they need a place to sleep,” he said.
Butler added that when homeless substance abusers have those three things provided to them, “They’re not going to buy any of it. What happens is that they have found a way to exploit a hole in the system. Agencies provide excellent services for the homeless to get them back to self-sufficiency.
“A small area of the services they provide is what’s called an overnight emergency or an emergency feeding and that’s what the criminals are exploiting,” he continued. “They’ll go from one agency to another and make the circuit so that they never have to buy food. All the money they can get their hands on goes into liquor and drugs. When they’ve done all the drugs they can do they completely pass out. Wherever they are is where they go to sleep. They’ll find the nearest spot that’s unattended, they’ll go to sleep, get up in the morning and then repeat the cycle.”
Vikki Wilkins, who with her husband Terry owns the UPS Store on Hogan Street, said that cycle creates problems for businesses. She said that it’s common for people living in Hemming Plaza to search through trash cans and then leave litter in the flower beds in front of her store. Wilkins also said that people often use the area behind her store as a restroom. That area is also the entrance for many of her customers.
“People go to the bathroom on my back door. I have to hose it down at least twice a week to clean up my business,” she said.
Wilkins began participating in the HITZ program last week, posting a sign behind the store that meets the requirements of the trespassing statute and allows the JSO to fully enforce the law.
David Yarborough, general secretary of the Jacksonville Scottish Rite Center on Hubbard Street, put the property on the HITZ program in 2004 and said it has been extremely effective.
He said that before HITZ, it was a daily occurrence for indigents to trespass in the park adjacent to the building and use the water hose to bathe and that prostitution and drug deals were often caught on security cameras.
“We had signs up, but they weren’t the proper signs,” said Yarborough. “Since the new signs went up, we haven’t had a problem. HITZ has certainly been a hit. They (trespassers) know what it means. It has worked tremendously for us.”
The second part of HITZ is the law that requires a six-month sentence for repeat misdemeanor offenders.
“The crack in the system was that when they got arrested on these smaller misdemeanor charges, they’d get out (of jail) within two or three days or a week,” said Butler. “That’s not long enough for treatment.
“With this law in place, when they get their sixth misdemeanor conviction, it’s a mandatory six-month sentence. There’s a choice. You can do six months at the prison farm or you can go into treatment for four months. They always choose treatment.”
He added that while an arrest is never a pleasant experience for the offender or the police, “The cruelest thing any of us can do to these offenders is to ignore the problem. These arrests are designed to be a firm, solid roadblock in the path of self-destruction so that we can turn them around. If they choose to go around the roadblock, we’ll provide another one and another one.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to get that person to be self-sufficient. It’s a win for the police. It’s a win for the corrections system. It’s a win for the offender because he gets off drugs and it’s a win for the community because he’s not out there doing those things anymore,” Butler concluded.