After more than three years, bitcoin’s most visible and arguably most successful charity has won its legal battle with Escambia County. The decision to issue a permit allows Sean’s Outpost to continue operating Satoshi Forest for the foreseeable future.
Sean’s Outpost is a primarily bitcoin funded homeless outreach charity. The focus was providing meals to the homeless. Utilizing bitcoin, they were able to do it much more effectively than charities with similar goals in the area. Eventually, Sean’s Outpost created Satoshi Forest on private land, to provide the homeless with a place to stay.
With no permanent structures, Satoshi Forest looks a bit like a 9-acre campground, only more colorful and with a sense of community. All its residents are homeless and that seemed to be at the heart of the debate.
The County opposed Satoshi Forest ostensibly because it didn’t have a permanent, all-weather road for the maintenance of the site’s portable toilets. This led the Escambia County Board of Adjustment to deny their permit back in 2015 and then narrowly deny Sean Outpost’s appeal by a 3-3 vote in December 2016 (the board decided that a tie was not enough to overturn a decision).
That decision was overturned in October by Judge Thomas Dannheisser, who determined no such regulation was in place. Additionally, in their initial ruling, the board denied the permit because the County determined that Sean’s Outpost didn’t make the upgrades that the County determined to be necessary before it could issue a permit. However, the county never provided Sean’s Outpost with a written list of what was needed. Instead, on the form informing them of their permit denial, the county had checked “See Below” as the reason for the denial. Problem was, they left the corresponding space on the form blank.
This led Judge Dannheisser to determine the Escambia County Board of Adjustment lacked “competent substantial evidence” since the court could not find the all-weather road requirement in any county or board regulations.
On November 13th, the Escambia County Board re-ruled on the permit, granting it to Sean’s Outpost. The only condition being that they increase the vegetative buffer space between the neighboring plots of land.
What Took So Long?
The underlying issue is why the county fought so hard to prevent a charity from operating within its boundaries.
The all-weather road objection was not the first regulation (real or imagined) that Escambia County tried to use to shut down Satoshi Forest. In 2014, they tried to shut down Satoshi Forest because the county claimed its tents needed building permits, because it deemed it in violation of its “nuisance” laws and because it allegedly violated the county’s accumulation of trash and debris regulations. Those accusations, among others, were eventually dropped.
Is it possible that the motive behind enforcing and even fabricating regulations was not a benevolent desire to protect its citizens from an unlicensed camp ground, but a fear of homeless people in general?
According to the Pensacola News Journal, Mike Grimes, a neighbor to Satoshi Forrest, obtained 200 signatures, asking the county to shut Satoshi Forest down. The paper quoted him as saying “You just have no idea who might be living back there,” and in another article “I’m worried about the safety … of my neighbors, our property values, our children in our neighborhood. That’s what I’m worried about. It’s not about being mean. They’ve got to have a place to go, (but) there has to be something better.”
“You just have no idea who might be living back there,”
It is hard to imagine that the concerns of citizens like Grimes were not at the forefront of the regulator’s minds when they denied Satoshi Forest a permit.
Sean’s Outpost founder Jason King, thinks that bias is at the heart of the resistance, but progress is being made.
“I think it’s very easy to take a look at the homeless population and just write them off. When someone stops you from doing that you have to start actually examining all of the system failures that caused that problem in the first place. That’s what they were doing, they were trying desperately to not have to actually examine the root causes of homelessness. Through perseverance I think we have really been able to change perception and people’s opinions on how to treat the less fortunate among us.”
Whatever the reason for the initial resistance, an intentional, permitted homeless camp is rare throughout the country. We should applaud Escambia County for tackling the homeless problem in this unique way, even if it was belated.
“We have several ‘homeless shelters’ permitted in Escambia County […] What we did not have (until this victory) was private property (Satoshi Forest) that is permitted solely as a place a person can be left alone to simply set up a shelter to escape the weather.” Said Satoshi Forrest’s lawyer William Dunaway in response to an email from CoinJournal “County officials are well aware of the number of people surviving daily on the streets. They know the area shelters and non-come-as-you-are ‘programs’ are inadequate to address the issue.”
Moving forward, Satoshi Forest will be working with County officials to remain in compliance and keep the site open. During the course of the three-plus year legal battle, Satoshi Forest managed to stay open during the entire ordeal. Now it is time to start looking forward.
“Next, we have to make a few minor changes to our plan […] changing the vegetative buffer from 10ft to 20ft.” Said Michael Kimberl in a statement to CoinJournal “After that, we then have to put in place everything we have down on our site plan. The county will then inspect the property to make sure we are in compliance with everything we said we would do.”
And from there, the goal presumably goes back to caring for the homeless, rather than the justice system. That is, unless there is another hurdle down the road.
“Now that Escambia County has a nine acre site permitted as a homeless encampment” stated Dunaway “I am sure Satoshi Forest is about to get a whole lot of attention from Code Enforcement and others from the government showing up to help.”