'Homelessness is not a crime': Lakeland police organize meeting on homeless services

Representatives from several Lakeland community organizations that frequently deal with the homeless met Tuesday to discuss how the issue is being addressed as a whole.
Representatives from several Lakeland community organizations that frequently deal with the homeless met Tuesday to discuss how the issue is being addressed as a whole.

LAKELAND — Roughly 50 people across different sectors of Lakeland communities gathered at Lake Crago Recreational Complex Tuesday morning to discuss issues affecting people experiencing homelessness.

Lt. Joe Parker, newly appointed head of Lakeland Police Department's new Community Services Section, moderated a lively roundtable discussion with two presentations.

Parker said he thinks 99% of the time when there's an issue involving homelessness or an episode of mental crisis, people call the police with the expectation for them to "solve the situation."

"We can all agree homelessness is not a crime. We shouldn't criminalize homelessness. We can't criminalize mental health issues," he said. "The point of me organizing this discussion is to make sure we are all doing our best together as a community to make sure we have a plan of action."

Mental health and homelessness

Alice Nuttall, Lakeland Regional Health's associate vice president of behavioral health services, addressed questions and concerns about mental illness within the homeless population. It's estimated about 30% of individuals who are chronically homeless have mental health issues, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"The earlier you are able to provide someone with resources, this is the same whether you are dealing with health conditions or mental health, the earlier you can get someone into services, the better that person's trajectory and outcome will be," she said.

More than 80% of individuals who arrive at Lakeland Regional Health for emergency psychiatric care arrive via law enforcement. It is one of three facilities in Polk receiving Baker Act admissions.

Lakeland Regional Health opened its new Harrell Family Center for Behavioral Wellness about six months ago, expanding its facility to provide 96 beds for in-patient services. Nuttall said there's been concern that LRH's new facility is attracting mental health patients from outside Polk, across the state.

The statistics show LRH has had a 12% decrease in accepting law enforcement-initiated Baker Act patients from outside Polk County over the past six months, according to Nuttall.

"Out of the increase in patients we've been caring for at our new crisis services at Lakeland Regional Health, we are caring for even more Polk County-initiated Baker Acts than prior," she said. "Why that's important, it debunks that myth we are accepting transfers from others hospitals that are coming in."

Nuttall shared stories of Lakeland Regional Health sending out-of-state patients back to their original hometowns for treatment. In one case, she said a woman with an untreated mental illness got on a plane, flew to Florida and was admitted under the Baker Act. Lakeland Regional Health procured a plane ticket to send the woman back to her home — an unreimbursed cost.

"We do know a person's best chance of being successful is where they have the most infrastructure or support," she said.

Nuttall said Lakeland Regional Health has discharged patients who, within their rights, make a choice to stay in the Lakeland area. She said it's always been that way.

"There has not been any great influx or increase in the number of people who are unhoused or unhomed coming into to our Baker Act facility at this time," Nuttall said.

Feedings in Munn Park was a hot topic of discussion at Tuesday's meeting between community organizations.
Feedings in Munn Park was a hot topic of discussion at Tuesday's meeting between community organizations.

Feedings in Munn Park spark debate

Jeff Spears of Feed My Sheep CFL was asked to speak about how his nonprofit organization hosts feedings in Munn Park. The issue of charitable groups distributing food to individuals in need at the park has become contentious, as downtown business owners say the practice comes with unintended consequences.

"Food, clothing, other sundries and stuff like that, it accommodates a crowd in the park," Parker said. "There's bathroom issues, there's litter issues, there's an issue where folks might not even need food but it's being offered so they show up."

Parker said the goal is to develop a plan so religious and charitable groups can provide food or feedings within set rules.

Feed My Sheep CFL rents out Munn Park four times a year using the city's special-event permit to provide outreach to the homeless and the needy. Spears said to get a permit from the city, his organization has to prove it meets certain requirements: pay city employees to clean up the trash, have liability insurance, rent a handicapped accessible portable restroom and have access to electricity.

Other agencies and individuals who come out to feed individuals in Munn Park don't always acquire a city permit, Spears said.

"They don't realize the residual effect of doing this when you don't have people who take care of the garbage, when you don't take care of the restroom facilities," he said.

The bathrooms at Lakeland Police Department's headquarters, 219 N. Massachusetts Ave., a short walk north of the park, are always available for public use.

Spears said he is working with Julie Townsend, executive director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, to draft an ordinance for the city that would provide guidelines for public feedings.

"I have nothing against people who go there and have a heart for the homeless, but we cannot wreck our city by allowing all these things without programs to keep our downtown clean," he said.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at swalsh@theledger.com or 863-802-7545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFl.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Lakeland police organize meeting to address homeless services downtown