As the presidential campaign rolls into Florida, Republicans may face the issue of homelessness on an unexpected front: ballparks.
A bill to force taxpayer-funded sports stadiums to double as homeless shelters is making its way through the Florida legislature this week. The bill, introduced by Republican state Sen. Michael Bennett of Florida, seeks the enforcement of a dormant 1988 law that said sports teams that accept public dollars to build their venues must shelter indigent people on off nights.
If teams can't prove that they're already complying with the law, Bennett wants them to repay the more than $300 million that Floridians have forked over for facilities such as the Miami Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium and the Miami Marlins' new baseball stadium. The proposal aims going forward to make teams accountable for following the original law and providing care for homeless individuals.
The politically charged legislation underscores the resentment that many feel about subsidizing sports stadiums while watching state and local governments cut needed services. Over the past decade, the public has shelled out billions of dollars for plush new digs to house their local sports teams. The bill arrives just as the Republican candidates -- sometimes accused of ignoring the neediest of recession-bitten Americans -- will be facing off in a Jan. 31 primary in Florida.
The idea of sheltering homeless individuals where exorbitantly paid athletes such as the Miami Heat's LeBron James and the Marlins' newly acquired Jose Reyes play at least draws attention to the problem, say homeless advocates.
"It's an interesting thing to throw out there," Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told The Huffington Post. "It's a good litmus test to kind of respond to it."
The coalition had written about the forgotten law before it re-emerged in the public eye. The letter noted that the stadiums would have to comply with the same safety standards as any other shelter. It also emphasized Florida's desperation, given its estimated 86,000 homeless and 9,000 available beds.
A homeless advocate in Miami echoed Donovan's sentiments. "It's a great idea, as long as there are wraparound services that are provided to address the needs of any homeless population, such as screening, mental health treatment and job training," said Ed McGowan, the CEO of Concept House in Miami.
The bill faces three more stops in the state Senate before it is sent to the floor, according to the Miami Herald. A companion bill in the House is also set to be voted on.
As the economy has weakened, so has the claim of franchises that stadium construction creates jobs and community revenue. Since 2000, taxpayers have shelled out $5 billion of the $9 billion used to build 28 major league stadiums, according to a 2008 University of Utah study. That includes the upcoming Super Bowl's site, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The touted benefits for the public good have mostly not materialized, the study determined. Bennett, the Florida state senator, fumed over rich franchises demanding citizens' money while programs for the poor continue to be cut.
But the taxpayers' burden could add up to victory for society's most ignored population. Said McGowan: "I think just our economic times over the last two or three years has made everyone look at homelessness."