The tents have come down, the fences have gone up and the heliconia and roses are blooming in Stranahan Park. For decades, the park and the county’s Main Library have been ground zero for the city’s homeless population, but on a Friday evening in February, only four people line the sidewalk – a far cry from the 80 folks who lived at the encampment here last November.
A construction worker, an attentive mother clutching her son’s hand, and an elderly man in dark shades are waiting in the park gazebo for the food sharing held here every week for more than 10 years by Food Not Bombs, a grassroots group that believes society could end hunger and poverty if war and militarization resources were reappropriated.
The sharing usually starts at 4:30 p.m., and by 4:45 everyone’s growing anxious – some crossing their arms, others pacing. “They’re still coming, right?” one man asks to no one in particular. After all, a municipal ordinance still bans sharing food in public spaces without a permit.
A communal sigh of relief washes over the place when, a few minutes later, a fleet of activists emerges with steaming platters. “Sorry, traffic!” one activist explains. Within a few minutes, their assembly line of dishes is out: salad, pasta, yucca, yellow rice, beans and glazed danishes.
As many as 30 folks trickle in, eating on the gazebo steps and balancing heaping plates on their knees. Servers and the people they serve share jokes. “I call it yuck-a,” a blue-haired activist quips, twisting her face in disgust. “No, it’s really good!” a young Hispanic man laughs, adding the Spanish pronunciation: “It’s yuuu-ca!”
After years of flare-ups between law enforcement and the estimated 300 homeless people who reside in Fort Lauderdale, a 15-minute traffic jam is about as contentious as things get around here now. Since being sworn in last March, the new city commission is committed to taking “a more humanitarian approach,” says Mayor Dean Trantalis, and no longer enforcing the so-called “homeless hate laws,” such as bans on sharing food. A new community court swaps jail time for petty crimes with services such as drug and alcohol recovery, medical and dental care, housing and even haircuts. And a promising council of local business leaders and the United Way have raised more than $1.2 million and already secured permanent housing for scores of people.
“We have stepped away from criminalizing homelessness,” Trantalis says. “This commission has made it a priority to assist and be more proactive with the homeless folks who live in and around our area.”
But even with this new approach, one new proposal shows how fraught these issues can be. A not-for-profit foundation has proposed a tower south of the New River in downtown with affordable-housing “micro-apartments” aimed at those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The proposal has drawn criticism from residents and leaders, including Trantalis, and the city and foundation are now trying to find common ground on a redesigned and somewhat scaled-back version of the project.
Activists, who argue that homelessness is a long-term, multi-pronged issue, are also holding their applause. “It’s great that they’re no longer arresting people but the city commissioners are self-congratulatory about this – it’s ‘mission accomplished’ for them,” says Nathan Pim, a Food Not Bombs activist.
Homelessness plagues most urban centers, but in recent years it’s been under a particular microscope in Fort Lauderdale. Four years ago, city police officers arrested Arnold Abbott, an outspoken advocate for the homeless who died in February at 94, along with a handful of others for serving food to the homeless. It has been – and still technically is – illegal ever since a series of municipal ordinances were passed by city commissioners, including bans on storage, panhandling and, most famously, sharing food.
On this evening as the sun begins to set and forks scrape the last bites on paper plates, a park ranger pulls up and tells the group that he’ll be locking the gates soon. Slowly, the 30 or so guests disperse to their hiding spots across the city, some packing blueberry bagels smeared in peanut butter for later. By night, only a few people are curled up on the park’s sidewalk. When asked where he sleeps if not at the park anymore, Michael, a Gulf War veteran who struggles with PTSD, squints distrustfully through his glasses. “I have a spot that I rather not share…It’s safe.”
For some, the problem is now simply more hidden away.
“The only thing that has changed has been the visibility,” Pim says. “Four or five people are now an acceptable amount to overlook.”
Old Problems, New Solutions
When the new city commission was sworn in last March, it seemed to usher in a sea change with how the community views homelessness. No longer deemed the sole burden of local government, private business leaders with deep pockets began stepping up. In partnership with the United Way, the Broward Business Council on Homelessness was announced last April and raised more than $1.2 million in a few months.
“The city, county and service providers were already working together – the business community was the missing last piece,” says council co-chair and Castle Group CEO James Donnelly. “We understood that these were people who for the most part couldn’t help themselves and that we could be a facilitator and help get the homeless what they need.”
It all started with AutoNation’s Mike Jackson putting out a $300,000 matching grant that was met by Donnelly’s Castle Group. About 50 more businesses donated too, and within a short amount of time the council had raised quite a bit of money.
Attention focused immediately on the library encampment, where 80 people were living with grills, TVs and storage units. Local leaders were concerned that the situation was growing out of hand, and worried that the raucous camp would deter tourists and new businesses. That’s when newly elected District 4 Commissioner and Vice Mayor Ben Sorensen moved his office from air-conditioned City Hall to a tent outside the library – in the scorching May heat. “I wanted to better understand, grow friendships and witness some of the challenges these folks face,” Sorensen says. “I wanted to show that we are interested in helping.”
Sorensen isn’t new to helping the homeless. The Navy veteran is a founding member of Mission United, which through the United Way of Broward County aims to reduce veteran homelessness. He helped link in-need veterans with pro bono attorneys and mental health professionals, and also secured funding from private local businesses.
“There were several veterans who were homeless, and anyone homeless isn’t acceptable,” Sorensen says. “Mission United was an amazing success and we wanted to focus on the broader homeless community.”
Last November, the city and county notified people in advance that the library encampment would be closing. They then systematically secured housing for everyone who was residing there: 77 received apartments mostly around Fort Lauderdale, three were reunited with family.
This contrasted sharply with a May 2017 raid. Then, police officers and city workers marched into the park with front-end loaders and dumpsters to throw away the personal belongings of homeless people who were either not there or unable to load what they had. The ACLU and Southern Legal Center represented 10 people who lost belongings, stating that the raid violated their protections against unlawful seizure of personal property and due process. A settlement of $82,020 was awarded in damages, enough money to help many of them find housing and get off the street.
Now, months after the library encampment closed, the United Way’s Broward Business Coalition on Homelessness is reporting that 90 percent of the people helped are still in housing and receiving services, considerably under the national 20 percent fallout rate.
“National data shows that the housing-first model is really more effective than expecting someone to go through substance abuse counseling or get a job or get on their meds before being put in housing,” explains Lynne Wines, senior director of the Broward Business Coalition on Homelessness at United Way.
Some homeless people have disabilities that prevent them from ever supporting themselves and will eventually need to enter a government-funded system, but the majority of people from the library encampment are expected to become fully independent and able to house themselves in six to eight months.
“In those instances, there is an ability to produce income but they needed a hand up,” Wines says. “They might not be able to pay first, last and security and need rent for a few months, but once they stabilize they will be fully independent.”
Of course, all this effort will be for nothing if leaders don’t tackle the complicated and unique issues that lead an individual to become homeless in the first place. It’s one thing not to enforce municipal ordinances criticized for targeting the homeless; it’s another to actually route folks into the counseling and care that they need.
“The homeless have issues that need to be addressed over time and you can’t expect them to be perfect,” says Luke Bairan of Food Not Bombs. “It’s a recipe for disaster and over time they’ll end up dead on the streets.”
Gordon Weekes of the Broward Public Defenders Office has long been discouraged with how local government handles homelessness. For years, he says, a homeless person would be picked up for a minor offense – public intoxication, obstructing traffic – and then appear in court and be released for time served, only to be arrested a few days or weeks later for the same offense. The twisted cycle repeated itself over and over again without addressing any of the root causes of an individual’s chronic homelessness.
“It was a revolving door in the courthouse,” Weekes says. “The judge knew every homeless person by name and it became very problematic.”
That all changed with Judge Jack Tuter’s new community court that launched this past January after being awarded a $200,000 grant by the Center for Court Innovation. Meeting every Wednesday in the city chambers (and outside the courthouse), community court helps route homeless people charged with municipal ordinances, such as public intoxication, into permanent housing, drug and alcohol counseling, and medical and dental care, among other services. The court also helps the homeless secure identification cards, birth certificates and social security benefits. Rather than lock up the homeless charged with these minor offenses, officers hand out a notice to appear.
“It’s a one-stop court system,” Judge Tuter says. “Instead of constantly locking folks up, we have a lot of people who can provide services and want to help.”
Tuter says that six to 17 people are seen every week. Each person’s need is accessed, and the city, county and local service providers create an action plan, typically involving housing and counseling care. People who have been charged with violent crimes like assault or battery don’t qualify for community court, but Tuter says he’s not looking to turn anyone away.
In fact, even if a homeless person has not been charged with a crime, they are welcome to walk in to the city chambers on Wednesday and work with the judge to find housing and care, or simply get a haircut or an ID.
“It would defeat the purpose of the court if we turned down a person who is not charged with a crime but comes in seeking alcohol recovery, for example,” Tuter says. “He can just turn around and break a window and say, ‘Now I qualify!’”
Everyone understands that there will be some speed bumps at first. “There are a lot of people who are failures,” Tuter admits. “But we dwell on the positives and there are people who are completely off alcohol and in housing and have jobs.”
So far, the court has been considered a success. Two people have “graduated” and are currently stable in the community. Frantz “Jahra” McLawrence, who represents the homeless in community court as a city public defender, says the impacts in just a few months have been life changing.
“I have represented a homeless man named Kevin for years and I walked right past him in court last week – I didn’t recognize him!” says McLawrence, who has worked with roughly 3,300 homeless people in Fort Lauderdale. “He was sober and well-dressed – a lot of these people, as you can imagine, have a strong pungent odor and he didn’t have that anymore.”
No one expected defeating homelessness in Fort Lauderdale to be easy, and the biggest obstacle has undoubtedly been the lack of affordable housing in the city. The average price of a Fort Lauderdale apartment is $1,858, and a recent study from The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that Broward County residents are some of the most cost-burdened in the country.
But when the AIDS Healthcare Foundation revealed plans to build a 15-story, 680-unit affordable housing building late last year, more than 4,300 people signed an online petition against the project. The proposed apartments would be some of the smallest in the city (263 to 400 square feet), but rent would be considerably under the market average at around $500 per month. It would sit across from the current AHF campus on SE Fourth Avenue and betweeSE Seventh and Eighth Streets, a lot currently being used for parking.
The project, which sits across US 1 from the upmarket Rio Vista neighborhood, drew immediate ire from residents.
“It’s easy to be altruistic when your home’s value and the quiet enjoyment of your neighborhood is not being hurt or challenged,” wrote Sheila from Flagler Village on Nextdoor.com, a social networking site based around neighborhoods. “Why don’t these positive thinkers welcome a super huge social experiment next door to their sacred spaces, their homes?!”
“I simply think the effects of this behemoth structure overlooking Rio Vista will be devastating to property values in nearby neighborhoods,” wrote Bill from Victoria Park on Nextdoor. “I’ve seen people suggest that they would rather see [this project] in another area or neighborhood.”
In Los Angeles, AHF’s Healthy Housing Initiative has converted abandoned homes and apartments into affordable housing units. However, this would be the first time the group built a new project from the ground up. The plans were created by Fort Lauderdale architect Margi Nothard of Glavovic Studio, whose projects include Artspark at Young Circle and Young at Art Museum/Broward County Library. A recent tour of a mock-up unit on the AHF campus revealed bright yellow cabinets, room for a refrigerator and burner stove, a couch, bed, bathroom and balcony. “This is the most rent-burdened community in the nation,” says AHF spokesperson Imara Canady. “This (project) is essentially a $71 million gift to solve a critical issue.”
Local community organizer Robin Merrill has been rallying support for the project. “It addresses the main issues on why people become homeless in the first place: a lack of affordable housing,” she says. “Unfortunately, in Broward County, most of us are just one illness or lost job from being homeless.”
The connotations of “homeless” and “affordable housing” and “low-income” are being used carefully as the project’s announcement came shortly after the library encampment was removed.
“After the camp was removed, everyone was freaked out and like, ‘You are not going to house all these people that you kicked out of central library in our backyard,’” Merrill says. “It’s complete misinformation and fear.”
Though nobody denies the urgent need for more affordable housing across the city, many local leaders are tempering their support. The United Way’s Lynne Wines says that the organization remains neutral about the project. Mayor Trantalis says he’s “hopeful” that the community and AHF will work out a solution. Ben Sorensen made homelessness one of his main issues, but his district includes both the proposed development and nearby Rio Vista, and he has come out against it.
“I’m concerned about density and the number of units,” Sorensen says. “What we need is smart development to address affordable housing and to work together to lift each other up.”
In the meantime, AHF and architects have reworked plans in the hope of finding compromise with the community. Modified plans call for 180 fewer apartments and a mixed-use emergency medical services substation, as well as added parking and a grocery store.
“We’re trying to work with the city and community and be a good neighbor,” Canady says. “This really is an opportunity to set a national example about working together to create a great impact in the low-income housing crisis.”
It remains unclear how the community will digest the new plans, if commissioners and residents and AHF will ever find common ground.
McLawrence, who represents the city’s homeless population in community court, sighs at the stigma homeless and low-income people face.
“At the end of the day, you can’t help the homeless if you can’t give them a home,” he says. “You can give them all the resources you want but, at the end of the night, if they’re forced to sleep behind a bus bench, what are you really solving?”