A 'hangout for homeless'?: Councilman questions benches along Mountain Drive

Matt Algarin
Councilman Tuffy Dixon says some of the benches along Mountain Drive have become a "hangout" spot for area homeless, as opposed to a resting place for pedestrians.

Councilman Tuffy Dixon says the only people he sees occupying the benches along Mountain Drive are the city's less fortunate.

"To me, it's a hangout for homeless people," he said during a recent City Council meeting. "I certainly don't want to take anything away from the people who would normally use those benches, but I think what it does cause is trouble."

Talking to The Log Monday, Dixon said he would ideally like to see the city reduce the amount of benches on Mountain Drive, placing them somewhere that makes more sense.

According to city officials, there are approximately nine benches along the stretch of roadway that runs from Stahlman Avenue on the west to Beach Drive on the east. The benches were installed as part of the Mountain Drive improvement project that was completed in 2011.

For Dixon, the benches are just not "utilized" by the average citizen.

"Anytime I've ever seen anybody on them they've been laying on them and sleeping," he said during a recent City Council meeting. "I've never seen what I would consider a productive citizen sitting on those benches."

Driving down Mountain Drive at night, it's not uncommon to see people occupying the benches. A majority of the time, they have alcoholic beverages in hand, which is not illegal, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

The city of Destin does not have any codes on its books that relate to open containers in public places, with the exception of its parks regulations. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited in all city parks except Clement Taylor Park, where a permit must be obtained first. At the state level, possession of an "open container" is prohibited in vehicles, but is not specifically regulated on public streets.

"Unless you are driving down the road or are underage," open container laws do not apply, according to Michele Nicholson from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. Someone would have be considered "drunken and disorderly" to be charged while walking down a street with an alcoholic beverage, she said.

While area homeless may gather on the city's benches, loitering laws are not in place to address the situation. The city's codes only mention loitering in city parks. The state's loitering statute says in part "It is unlawful for any person to loiter or prowl in a place, at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals, under circumstances that warrant a justifiable and reasonable alarm or immediate concern for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity."

Nicholson said that people could be charged with loitering, but it's not very common.

As a family friendly destination, Dixon said he would like to see the benches used by people who are "taking a break" or walking through the area, not for people to sleep on. There are places, such as the Marler Street parking lot, where the benches could be "better used," Dixon said.

"To just have them everywhere down there, it just doesn't make sense," he told The Log. "If we have a problem area, the best thing we can do is address them."