LEE COUNTY — In a matter of days, it will become illegal to stand on the median in the road anywhere in Lee County.
Commissioners said the decision will make the county safer, but homeless advocates said this criminalizes the activity of the county’s most vulnerable people.
Gracie Lash has been living in the homeless camp behind the Hancock Bridge Square shopping center, and every day she walks out to the median on Route 41 to make a living.
"I have been holding a sign. I have been working hard every day to earn money," said Lash.
Lash is just one of several people who panhandle at the intersection, and even she will tell you, it’s dangerous.
"One of my friends at our camp site, we call him Mohawk, and he was actually hit by a car," said Lash.
That’s the kind of danger Lee County Commissioners said they’re trying to avoid.
"Lee County is now the 11th most dangerous place to be in the country, so we need to understand this is predominantly about safety," said Lee County Commission Chair Kevin Ruane.
The new ordinance will fine people up to $500 if they’re caught in the median, and they could even end up in jail for up to 60 days, but Sheriff Carmine Marceno said, that’s not the goal.
"The last thing we want to do is go enforce. What we want to do is gain compliance through education," said Marceno.
But one homeless advocate spoke out against the ordinance.
"The county cannot single out panhandling for differential treatment," said Kat Duesterhaus in her statement before the Commission.
Duesterhaus said the ordinance is a direct attack on the homeless population. She said, instead of threatening people with fines, the county should be helping them.
"I think the right way to reduce panhandling is to help these people off the streets the right way, through housing, through access to mental wellness services," said Duesterhaus.
County Commissioners argue that the emergency shelter at the Triage Center is open and not at capacity right now, so they encourage people to go there, but Lash tells us she’s been there before and she feels she wasn’t treated well, so she does not want to go back.
The County said the new ordinance will go into effect in the next few days.