Surrounding Hurricane Irma, Category 5 ‘Law and Order’ and Other Unnatural Disasters Beset Florida’s Poorest

On any given day the residents of Haines City, Florida, situated in the heart of rural Polk County, embody a struggle to survive in the face of dire poverty. Comprising a mix of low income whites, Black and Latinx migrant workers predominantly from Haiti, Mexico and Central America, and a smattering of others who could simply be classified as dirt poor, in the days leading up to and following Hurricane Irma their challenges were magnified to another level of oppressive.

“No government entity at all checked on our community before, during or after the hurricane,” said Tara Colon, a single mother of five who volunteers as an organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC), a legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. As Colon puts it, PPEHRC is about “poor people organizing together to empower other poor people.”

Living amidst the low income housing and trailer parks which dot her community, surrounded by orange and peach orchards, blueberry farms and cattle ranches, and the day labor gathering spots from which brown-skinned men eke out a spotty existence doing construction work, Colon spoke by phone of the many people who’d spent their food stamp allotments prior to the storm only to have all the food go bad due to the loss of electricity. Unlike somewhat more affluent communities like nearby Poinciana and Clermont, where power and internet service had been restored shortly after Irma passed, however, Colon noted that not only was power still off and that no local agency had provided help, but that they’d also been ignored by national nonprofit and governmental agencies like FEMA and the Red Cross, which typically raises tens of millions of dollars following natural disasters.

Haines City residents sort through supplies delivered by Tampa Bay PPEHRC allies (Credit: Bruce Wright)

“It seems like they just don’t care,” she said.

She did, however, note that a few nights after Irma had passed, apparently owing to a neighbor’s complaint about excessive noise coming from her property which had become a gathering spot to help other needy community members, a Haines City cop showed up to tell them to quiet down. According to Colon the cop was the only city employee who’d appeared in her community since before the hurricane.

Colon also noted that had it not been for the efforts of some PPEHRC allies from the Tampa Bay area, who transported food and water to the community over the past week, many more people in Haines City would be going hungry.

Even as Hurricane Irma tore its way through the Leeward and Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and then the northern coasts of Hispaniola and Cuba with historic ferocity, Floridians attuned to the struggles of those who weather a daily forecast of poverty and homelessness were aware that far worse than a terrifying storm was headed in the direction of their less fortunate neighbors.

If history has taught us on some level what to expect as Mother Nature has her way with us – nightmare visions of post-Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Sandy victims and, twelve years ago, of the Big Easy’s infrastructure and largely poor Black populace so easily eviscerated not just by Katrina but by indifferent and inept local and national leaders, predatory, racist NOLA cops and a reliable raft of disaster capitalists, will haunt us forever – it’s not clear at all that society’s misleaders have learned a single lesson about human decency or the fragility of life, itself, especially among communities whose survival is at risk come rain or shine.

While anecdotes of neighbor helping neighbor in the lead-up to and aftermath of Irma thankfully also abound, examples of the systemic abuse of the neediest among us came in many forms.

Back in Polk County, Sheriff Grady Judd promised ID checks for anyone who aspired to the safety of the emergency shelters which were being prepared as a refuge from the hurricane. While the immigrant community already has a well-reasoned aversion to shelters, explained Colon, the effect of Judd’s promise to jail anyone with an outstanding warrant, delivered to the public via Twitter, had the effect of forcing a horrible choice on people hoping for shelter in the direst of circumstances.

While it’s yet unclear how many were deterred from seeking shelter, or simply left the county because of the sheriff’s rock-and-hard-place gambit, one thing is certain. According to NBC News, Judd has been sued by a pro-bono law firm funded by Nexus Services, a Virginia-based legal services organization, for violating the constitutional rights of people whose only hope had been to find a safe place as the deadly hurricane approached.

Meanwhile in Miami-Dade County, whose cosmopolitan contrast with Polk could hardly be more extreme, homeless residents were offered a variation on the same theme.

‘Go to shelter or be Baker Act’ed,’ was Homeless Trust CEO Ron Book’s dictum to those whose plan, irrespective of the reason, didn’t include heading to one of the county’s emergency shelters for safety. The Baker Act allows authorities to hold individuals, who they deem an imminent threat to themselves or others based on a mental health diagnosis, in a psychiatric facility for 72 hours.

Book’s pronouncement was met with a statement from the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy (NARPA), which criticized the ad hoc policy for its equation of homelessness with mental incapacity. It noted that “we reject the reported assertion that any person experiencing homelessness must, by definition, also have a ‘mental illness.’ Lacking adequate shelter is not an indicator of any alleged mental disorder, nor is detaining individuals who lack shelter consistent with the right of every individual to make choices.”

Columnist David M. Perry, writing in the Pacific Standard, also mused about future implications if such a policy directed against homeless people was to become normalized.

“In the end, officials at the Homeless Trust told me, six people were committed. It’s not a huge number, but each of these individuals has rights, and in each case those rights were violated. Those violations could be been prevented with better planning. Advocates worry about the potential for similar misuse of involuntary commitment, especially given that none of the widespread news coverage of the Baker Act reached out to experts like NARPA, Next Steps, or the Bazelon Center,” Perry wrote.

Just to the north, in Fort Lauderdale, an ABC reporter boasted in his lead-in to an interview with a homeless man, just one of a group who’d opted to stay in a sturdy downtown parking garage, that he’d sought the intervention of nearby police to force the group to go to shelter. City officials, meanwhile, and in contrast to Miami-Dade’s policy, had sanctioned the homeless folks’ decision to stay in the parking garage, where they were shielded from all of the elements but for some wind-driven mist, according to the man interviewed.

The homeless man, interviewed for the current story on Friday, also said he’d felt “browbeaten” by the reporter’s repeated questions which, he felt, carried with them the suggestion that homeless people choosing a parking garage for shelter over a county-designated location was unreasonable.

Sean Cononie, a well-known service provider whose organization, COSAC, Inc, previously ran Broward County’s only low-barrier shelter, was tasked by county officials with seeking out homeless people, who may not have gotten the word about Irma’s approach, on the streets. He described what appeared to be an extreme lack of coordination as homeless people were being dropped off by emergency bus operators at shelters which were already too full to accept more evacuees.

If not going to shelter was an issue in some places, in others it was the system’s refusal to provide it or, at least, to offer equal access or adequate protection to homeless people. More than a few were relegated to potentially dangerous situations as they waited out the storm.

In Volusia County, law enforcement officers were caught on video by a reporter from the Daytona Beach News Journal denying shelter to homeless folk who’d shown up at a school which had been designated an emergency shelter for the general populace. The homeless people were ordered to get on a nearby bus which would take them to the Salvation Army shelter, or to leave the school property.

A subsequent report from local homeless advocate Thomas Rebman noted that when the Salvation Army shelter also became unable to accommodate more homeless people, some were transported to a building at the Volusia County Fair Grounds used to house animals during the annual fair. The group of up to 40 people, according to Rebman, was forced to endure about a day-and-a-half with no air conditioning during which the only food provided to each was a chicken thigh and a side dish. The News Journal, meanwhile, also reported that others who’d arranged to go to the fairgrounds with their pets, the county’s only designated pet-friendly shelter, had a happier story to tell. As one of the pet owners in the story states, “We had more food than you could eat.”

In Pinellas County, Rev. Bruce Wright, a leader of the PPEHRC group which provided assistance to the people in Haines City, noted that homeless people who’d been shuttled to Largo High School were segregated from those who’d also found their way to the school to weather Irma but who had homes to return to. He stated he’d heard similar stories of segregation occurring in other locales across the county.

The reverend also noted that homeless folk sent to emergency shelter from the Pinellas Hope homeless shelter were returned to the latter prior to electricity or running water having been restored. He called officials’ decision to close the emergency shelter “premature.” (Wright, a St. Petersburg-based homeless advocate and substance abuse counselor who also hosts the weekly Revolutionary Road Radio Show, also focused this past Monday night’s program on a number of the abuses covered in this story. A podcast is available here.)

IrmaLargoHighRichardPeeteBlueWristbandPhoto

Richard Peete, a homeless advocate who is also a resident of Pinellas Hope, captured the disparate treatment in a Facebook post.

“At the largo high school, they have us separated away from the rest of the world in a different building. This morning, 4 of us went to the cafeteria for coffee and a lady asked us if we had a home? WTF is that? Those people have tvs, tables and chairs, lawn chairs, coolers, blowup mattresses. We at pinellas hope , as you can see, have cardboard boxes to sleep on. Anything wrong here,” asked Peete.

Peete also noted that homeless people were required to wear blue wristbands while housed at the school, a form of stigmatization evocative of the Nazis’ treatment of Jews during Hitler’s implementation of the Final Solution. But while a number of individuals being sheltered in the area for housed persons were caught by staff taking drugs and getting into altercations, the homeless man said that no such incidents occurred among the homeless contingent. He concluded, “Whatever these people think of us homeless folks, they’re wrong.”

While the instances depicted above define a range of abuse and discrimination, none of this kind of treatment is new for people experiencing homelessness. Most every county and city referenced has embedded in its structures political, economic and legalistic frameworks which relegate those experiencing homelessness to the outside of what Capitalist culture, whose victims are always to blame, deems an acceptable mode of existence. But with a wealth inequality gap which seems only to be growing, and more climate change-driven hurricanes on the horizon even as this story was being written, the troubling question remains as to how society can more humanely serve the neediest among us, even on the Sunshine State’s sunniest, most hurricane-free days of the year.

Jeff Weinberger, Organizer and Co-Founder                                                                           Florida Homelessness Action Coalition/October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness
Sept. 20, 2017

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Rats! Four-legged, two-legged and the woe they bring

Image result for rats

Beginning with the people who lived there, nobody would have described the homeless encampment adjacent to Stranahan Park in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale as an ideal home.

Belongings stacked on wooden pallets, other stuff sitting on the ground, covered with tarps on a 1500 square foot oblong patch of dirt; an infestation of rats (I’ll get back to the rats in a bit); no privacy; no 24-hour access to restrooms or showers, especially for those who are disabled; a continual threat of theft and physical violence – gunshots and at least one stabbing had occurred in recent months – and the real emotional violence that comes with the psychic territory of feeling like a misplaced stitch in an otherwise cohesive social fabric…no, none of us would call this ideal or desirable or, dare I say, acceptable.

But if home is that place where one has at least some semblance of stability, a sense of community and connection to one’s neighbors, a place, rudimentary as it may be, to go and hang the proverbial hat, then home this was for the several dozens of people who, on the whim of a notoriously callous mayor and city manager, saw themselves evicted from that home yesterday afternoon, and their community destroyed.

There was no warning, just the calm of another Friday afternoon but this time washed away by a human tsunami indifferent to the havoc it would wreak. A political and economic tsunami borne on the waves of hegemonic neoliberalism and big bucks real estate investors.

“Seiler said the city is willing to help its homeless but doesn’t want them camping outdoors in the middle of a redeveloping downtown,” the Sun-Sentinel noted in its story following Friday’s disaster, paraphrasing a statement the mayor ostensibly made at a meeting earlier this month. To clarify that, the second part of Seiler’s statement is absolutely true. As for the first part, we’ve seen for eight years how the Seiler administration defines “help,” Friday’s events being just the latest example.

Accompanied by the dolorous whir of the bulldozer carrying out the dirty work beneath the hot, late afternoon sun, FLPD brass, a retinue of FLPD cops, yellow-shirted private security guards, city Parks and Recreation workers and, standing off to the side none other than the architect of this horror, City Manager Lee Feldman, those who were lucky to be present when the enforcement began saw their belongings stuffed into the dozens of blue garbage cans repurposed as storage containers for the occasion. Each container was tagged with a number and each person given a receipt should they have the fortitude to reclaim their stuff from Fort Lauderdale police headquarters beginning on Monday. Those who were not present would have a sadder story to tell.

They would return to the track of a bulldozer tire where their stuff had been sitting prior to them having gone to run an errand or, as some do, to work. Holly, 73 years old, who’d once run an antique business, had her copious belongings, mostly clothing, thrown into a dump truck; Lala, a woman in her 20’s who’s both homeless and studying cosmetology full-time, returned to find all her stuff including her very expensive school books and phone had been trashed. But one would not have learned this from attending the post-debacle press conference hosted by Seiler and Feldman at city hall. Rather the pervasive attitude there was one of self-congratulation (for having saved the homeless folk from the rats) and enforced denial.

While Seiler went on about how all the homeless people were treated with respect during the just-completed enforcement (what essentially had been a state-sponsored strong-arm eviction), he completely ignored my question as to what the city would do for those whose belongings had been discarded in violation of the city’s own ‘outdoor storage ban’. Undaunted, I re-asserted my question (unsurprisingly to no avail), at which point two FLPD officers who’d been on the other side of the chamber moved closer to where I was standing, one moving directly behind me. There was no further incident – or I might not be writing this now – but the message being sent couldn’t have been clearer. Speaking truth to power always comes with a cost.

So what about those rats (referring to the four-legged species here, not those standing at the podium)? How neatly boxed, and tied up with a little bow, this narrative might appear – a bunch of dirty, shiftless homeless people attracted rats and got their comeuppance – until we take a moment to unpack it.

Since long before the establishment of the encampment between Stranahan Park and the Main Library this past December – ironically created at the urging of the FLPD, whose officers even provided the wooden pallets on which folks could set their stuff – prior to which the park’s denizens were camped along the fence on its east side, rats had been present. The city did nothing about them and, in fact, an easy case could be made that the city, colluding with the adjacent Fort Lauderdale Woman’s Club to plant shrubbery and turn an open-space public park into a bourgeois botanical garden, created the conditions for the rats to have safe haven and multiply.

Then this past Wednesday the city got its own well-deserved comeuppance for its negligence in the form of a citation from the Florida Department of Health, which specifically focused on the rat infestation. The timing couldn’t have been better…for the city!

As the Sun-Sentinel also noted in its Friday story, “At a City Commission workshop held at the Women’s [sic] Club…last week, elected officials agreed they wanted the camp cleared out but couldn’t decide how to go about it.”

Then, right on time, the state gave city leaders all the justification they needed to demolish the camp by issuing the citation. One need not have a conspiratorial nature to consider the timing a bit suspect, though it would require considerably more digging to determine if this is another form of rat we’re smelling or just the malodorous stench of a sad and curious coincidence.

In any event, while the city neglected a serious health problem for years, and while it would be virtually impossible for any group of people forced to live, eat, and perform their bodily functions next to a breeding ground for vermin to not be beset by such an infestation, it was solely the lives of the latter, of the homeless people whose condition speaks of desperation, of neglect and abuse, who were prodded along like cattle and re-traumatized with an enforcement both legalistic and psychic, as it carried with it the implicit message that their lives are worthless.

Where were the social workers to help assuage the impact of this new trauma? (A number of people were visibly devastated by what happened.) How are people with no money, sent for a week to cheap motels on State Road 84 with a 7-day bus pass, supposed to eat? (Is that not a bigger health concern than even rats?) How are they to obtain services? If their stuff was forcibly put into storage, how are they supposed to lug it all, now filling the insides of blue garbage cans at police HQ, back to wherever they’re going to wind up? And the perennial question, what next for these folks who, come next Friday, will have no place to call even a provisional home? City officials seem to have pondered none of these questions before opportunistically charging forward with yet another ill-planned venture.

The bottom line, the only solution to the horror of homelessness, is permanent supportive housing which includes a level of services tailored to individual need. Not only is this the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but multiple studies have now documented the cost-effectiveness of this solution. The stability of housing, combined with social services, enables chronically homeless people to deal with their issues rather than being subjected to a costly revolving door reaction to their ever-worsening health issues, and to the enforcement of petty laws which criminalize them while doing nothing to improve their lives. Whether the political will exists to change this culture is far more problematical.

More expediently, sometimes lawsuits also work, and it may not be long before city attorneys once again find themselves on a docket and getting paid to defend the indefensible, as they’re already doing with regard to the food sharing ordinance. Last year, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found the city of Los Angeles guilty of doing exactly what happened yesterday in Fort Lauderdale, namely systematically seizing and/or trashing homeless persons’ belongings, and it mandated an end to that practice.

To wit, another coincidence was present yesterday in the form of Alex Johnson, the president of the Broward County chapter of the ACLU who happened to be taking care of some business at the Main Library right at the time the enforcement was happening. Together we took the names of the victims, some of whom also courageously spoke with the various media outlets that showed up to cover this sordid affair. Or, to put it more accurately, this ongoing sordid affair.

A battle may have been lost on Friday, but this war – a war to assert the dignity of all in the face of a fundamentally unequal system – is far from over.

Jeff Weinberger, Co-Founder
October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness
May 20, 2017

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Bill of Rights Covered and Uncovered

Last Monday’s announcements to media and the broader Florida citizenry of what would be a momentous legislative coup – a Homeless Bill of Rights for the state’s massive population of unhoused residents – was both heard and not heard. The campaign for the bill’s passage is being led by the Florida Homelessness Action Coalition and is backed by local, state and national legal and homeless advocacy org’s including the National Coalition for the Homeless, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the ACLU and the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.

While TV news coverage was positive in many respects, major daily papers uniformly stayed away, which we take as a reflection of the latter’s propagandistic imperative to serve as mouthpieces for the gentry and its political proxies who sit in powerful places in local government. Not that TV news doesn’t regularly serve the same function – both TV and major print media each tend to sensationalize the issue of homelessness, whereby even in their so-called ‘balanced’ approaches to the issue there’s always a slant towards demonizing homeless folk – but for whatever reason, they showed up whereas the dailies, one of whose offices is just blocks from where the Fort Lauderdale press conference took place, stayed home.

That paper, the Sun-Sentinel, then interviewed yours truly for a half hour a couple of days after the press conference, during which I provided copious info on the importance of the bill, and subsequently received from me substantial documentation on how administrators in the county’s homeless help system have thwarted confronting the issue of homeless criminalization. Not a word of it made it into their story, which merely mouths the rhetoric of the very same players who toy with the lives of homeless people as if they’re merely widgets.

Below are links to a compilation of some of that coverage, which was put out by media outlets from Pensacola to south Florida. Leading off is a video from a panel discussion hosted by the Public Interest Law Society at St.. Thomas University School of Law, which took place the week before the media announcement and focused on the issue of homeless criminalization as seen through the lenses of case law and grassroots political organizing. The video is a good intro to the general topic of homeless criminalization, and why a Homeless Bill of Rights is so urgently needed in Florida and in many other states.

Panel discussion                                                                           https://echo360.org/media/e4778f8e-26e5-49ed-81c5-013755a35754/

Fort Lauderdale coverage English (Local 10)
http://fw.to/uD628ub

Fort Lauderdale coverage Spanish (America Press Network)

Pensacola coverage (WEARTV)
http://weartv.com/news/local/groups-want-bill-of-rights-for-the-homeless

Tampa coverage (Bay News 9)
http://www.baynews9.com/content/news/baynews9/news/article.html/ content/news/articles/bn9/2016/10/10/new_bill_could_help_.html

Radio coverage

Tough Times Radio Show

Revolutionary Road Radio Show

Will Florida Legislature consider a Homeless Bill of Rights?

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MEDIA ALERT: Homeless Rights Campaign to Kickoff with VP Candidate and Food Sharing Icon

flhac-hborcampaignflyerrollout1sidea-2016-09-17flhac-hborcampaignflyerrollout2sideb-2016-09-19

(Update 10/10/16 Green Party VP candidate Ajamu Baraka had to cancel all of his Florida stops and will not be speaking at our Tampa press conference.)

FLORIDA HOMELESSNESS ACTION COALITION MEDIA ADVISORY
For October 10, 2016
For Immediate Release October 7, 2016

Homeless Rights Campaign to Kickoff with VP Candidate and Food Sharing Icon
#stopthecriminalization #decriminalizehomelessness #stopthehate

What: Green Party Vice Presidential candidate, Ajamu Baraka, and Arnold Abbott, who made international headlines for his multiple arrests in 2014 for sharing food with homeless persons in Fort Lauderdale, will be among the featured speakers as Florida Homelessness Action Coalition (FLHAC), a grassroots homeless advocacy coalition including organizers from Pensacola to Miami, announces its campaign to bring a Homeless Bill of Rights to the Florida Legislature in 2017. Press events will take place in four Florida cities to introduce the campaign to the public. (Please also see supplemental attachments including current and previous press release PDF’s; Speakers list PDF; Draft bill/Endorsers PDF; Campaign Flyer front and back; Statement on why we need a Homeless Bill of Rights PDF.) Link to Bill and Endorsers: http://fhbor.blogspot.com/; Facebook Campaign page: https://www.facebook.com/flhbor/
When: All locations: Monday, October 10, 2016, 10am (World Homeless Day)

Where: Four Florida cities as follows (locations subject to change)
 Fort Lauderdale: Stranahan Park, 10 East Broward Boulevard (on SE 1st Ave. adjacent to park)
 Tampa: Homeless Helping Homeless, Inc., 3000 North Florida Avenue
 Orlando: Orlando City Hall, 400 South Orange Avenue
 Pensacola: Pensacola City Hall, 222 West Main Street

Contacts: Campaign Lead Organizer in Fort Lauderdale: Jeff Weinberger, October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, 954-839-5376, browardhomeless@gmail.com; Tampa/St. Pete: Rev. Bruce Wright, Refuge Ministries, 727-278-1547, bruce@stpeteprogressives.org; Pensacola: Michael Kimberl, Sean’s Outpost, 850-287-0792, d.edlee99@gmail.com; Orlando: Teresa Pugliese, Speak Up Florida!, 407-985-6164, teresaxpugliese@gmail.com

Summation
Florida cities have led the nation in passing laws banning activities and behaviors including sitting and lying down, camping and sleeping (including in vehicles), panhandling/begging, loitering, storing personal property in public space, performing bodily functions (in the absence of public restrooms), food sharing and more. Despite their unconstitutional nature, their costliness relative to providing housing and vital social services, and their utter failure in terms of addressing the root causes of homelessness or alleviating this inhumane reality, the proliferation of laws criminalizing homelessness persists. A Florida Homeless Bill of Rights is urgently needed for the protection of the rights of society’s most vulnerable population, and for the achievement of the broader social aims of ending homelessness and confronting systemic class, racial, and other forms of inequality which intersect with homelessness.

FLHAC formed in the wake of the National Coalition for the Homeless’ first ever conference of grassroots homeless advocates, which took place in Denver in April, 2015. FLHAC has been organizing two important projects in advance of today’s announcement. The first, a research study on the criminalization of homelessness in Florida, is due to be published later in October, 2016. The second is the Florida Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign, which is an effort to amend the Florida Statutes 1) by calling for the decriminalization of ostensibly constitutionally protected and/or life-sustaining activities and behaviors of people experiencing homelessness throughout Florida; and 2) by asserting fundamental rights to housing, health care, employment or income, and more, as defined in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaties.

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Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign Rolls Out on World Homeless Day

PleaseDoNotFeedTheHomeless

The Florida Homelessness Action Coalition (FLHAC) will hold four simultaneous press conferences in cities across the state next Monday, October 10, to announce its campaign to bring a Homeless Bill of Rights to the Florida legislature in 2017. October 10 is World Homeless Day.

The campaign is the culmination of an organizing effort which began last year in the wake of the National Coalition for the Homeless’ first ever conference of grassroots homeless advocates from across the country. Two of the directives which advocates took from that conference, which was hosted by the Colorado advocacy group, Denver Homeless Out Loud, were to develop practical research on the criminalization of homelessness, and to push for homeless rights legislation.

FLHAC’s core organizing group which created the campaign includes Jeff Weinberger, the group’s co-founder and founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, Rev. Bruce Wright of St. Petersburg’s Refuge Ministries and host of the Revolutionary Road Radio Show, Adam Tebrugge, Staff Attorney with the Florida ACLU, Patricia Hart, a writer and homeless person working with Tampa’s Homeless Helping Homeless and George Bolden, a formerly homeless consultant and homeless advocate based in Pinellas County.

A research study which the group initiated with St. Thomas University Law Professor Marc-Tizoc Gonzalez and his research assistant, third-year JD candidate, Jessica Biedron, will be published later this month. The report will document the extent to which 17 Florida cities have implemented laws banning life-sustaining behaviors and activities like camping, sitting and lying down, begging and food sharing. Taken together, these and other laws, combined with the extra-legal harassment endured by homeless persons every day, comprise the phenomenon referred to as “criminalization of homelessness.”

The cities hosting press conferences will be Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and Pensacola (see press release below). Tentative speakers at the events in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, respectively, now include criminal defense attorney Benjamin Waxman, who led the Pottinger v. Miami legal team in winning a landmark settlement agreement establishing homeless persons’ rights in Miami in 1998, and long time civil rights fighter, Arnold Abbott, now 92, who was notoriously cited three times in 2014 under the former city’s food sharing ban; and in Tampa, Green Party Vice Presidential nominee Ajamu Baraka is a hopeful participant.

The draft bill, linked here with a list of endorsers, draws its language from Homeless Bill of Rights legislation already on the books in three states – Rhode Island, Illinois and Connecticut – as well as from international treaties like the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Puerto Rico also has a similar bill.

Many homeless advocates have compared the propagation of laws targeting homeless persons with laws which historically have discriminated against specific groups, most notably Jim Crow laws targeting Blacks from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and ’60’s; Ugly Laws, Sundown Laws and many more.

The bottom line for FLHAC’s advocates, irrespective of the success of the current campaign, is to educate and mobilize more people toward building a movement dedicated to confronting systemic inequality in all its forms, none of which is more heinous than, nor as deeply embedded in the U.S.’s ‘bootstraps’ culture as the marginalization and criminalization of people based on their economic status, and especially those who are homeless.


PRESS RELEASE FOR FHBOR PRESS CONFERENCES ON 10/10/16:

FLORIDA HOMELESSNESS ACTION COALITION                                                                          MEDIA ADVISORY
October 3, 2016
For Immediate Release

Campaign for Homeless Rights Legislation to Kickoff                         on World Homeless Day

#stopthecriminalization #decriminalizehomelessness #stopthehate

What: Florida Homelessness Action Coalition (FLHAC), a grassroots homeless advocacy coalition including organizers from Pensacola to Miami, is proud to announce our campaign to bring a Homeless Bill of Rights to the Florida Legislature in 2017 with four simultaneous press events in cities spanning the state. (Please also see supplemental attachments including press release PDF; draft bill/endorsers PDF; Campaign Flyer front and back; Statement on why we need a Homeless Bill of Rights PDF.) Bill/Endorsers Link: http://fhbor.blogspot.com/; FB: https://www.facebook.com/flhbor/
When: All locations: Monday, October 10, 2016, 10am (World Homeless Day)

Where: Four Florida cities as follows (locations subject to change)
 Fort Lauderdale: Stranahan Park, 10 East Broward Boulevard (on SE 1st Ave. adjacent to park)
 Tampa: Homeless Helping Homeless, Inc., 3000 North Florida Avenue
 Orlando: Orlando City Hall, 400 South Orange Avenue
 Pensacola: TBD

Contacts: Campaign Lead Organizer in Fort Lauderdale: Jeff Weinberger, October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, 954-839-5376, browardhomeless@gmail.com; Tampa/St. Pete: Rev. Bruce Wright, Refuge Ministries, 727-278-1547, bruce@stpeteprogressives.org; Pensacola: Michael Kimberl, Sean’s Outpost, 850-287-0792, d.edlee99@gmail.com; Orlando: Teresa Pugliese, Speak Up Florida!, 407-985-6164, teresaxpugliese@gmail.com

Summation
Florida cities have led the nation in passing laws banning activities and behaviors including sitting and lying down, camping and sleeping (including in vehicles), panhandling/begging, loitering, storing personal property in public space, performing bodily functions (in the absence of public restrooms), food sharing and more. Despite their unconstitutional nature, their costliness relative to providing housing and vital social services, and their utter failure in terms of addressing the root causes of homelessness or alleviating this inhumane reality, the proliferation of laws criminalizing homelessness persists. A Florida Homeless Bill of Rights is urgently needed for the protection of the rights of society’s most vulnerable population, and for the achievement of the broader social aims of ending homelessness and confronting systemic class, racial, and other forms of inequality which intersect with homelessness.

Florida Homelessness Action Coalition (FLHAC) formed in the wake of the National Coalition for the Homeless’ first ever conference of grassroots homeless advocates, which took place in Denver at the end of April, 2015. FLHAC has been organizing two important projects in advance of today’s announcement. The first, a research study on the criminalization of homelessness in Florida, is due to be published later in October, 2016. The second is the Florida Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign, which is an effort to amend the Florida Statutes 1) by calling for the decriminalization of ostensibly constitutionally protected and/or life-sustaining activities and behaviors of people experiencing homelessness throughout Florida; and 2) by asserting fundamental rights to housing, health care, employment or income, and more, as defined in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

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Flying Under the Radar: A tactic in the fight against homeless criminalization

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”  – Frederick Douglass

“You can’t count on the worst always happening/You need a busload of faith to get by” – Lou Reed

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An amazing non-event happened last week which we can file under both ‘no news is good news’ and ‘flying under the radar.’ Here’s what didn’t happen.

This past Wednesday we got word from Barry Butin, who co-chairs the Broward ACLU‘s legal panel, that an ordinance banning panhandling throughout the city of Coconut Creek would be introduced the following night at its City Commission meeting. In itself, this is hardly surprising.

All across the state – all across the country, for that matter – and especially in recent decades, cities have been passing laws which criminalize the life-sustaining behaviors and activities of people who are homeless like rabbits reproducing. While these laws serve no purpose in curtailing homelessness, the stubborn mythology that they’ll somehow compel homeless folk to move on, either physically or with their lives, persists. Meanwhile, only two forms of intervention have seemed to make a dent in this regime of hating on the homeless: lawsuits and, more recently, a shifting policy tide in the federal government. Now here’s another (though, based on our experience, we don’t expect this to become widely applicable).

Upon getting this news from our ACLU friend, Mr. Butin, we immediately found and read the proposed ordinance, then began contacting Coconut Creek officials, several of whom we spoke with. Thankfully, one of them was City Attorney Terrill Pyburn.

We explained to Ms. Pyburn how the federal government, via HUD, was now even tying funding for homeless services to local governments’ not passing laws which criminalize homelessness. We mentioned that Broward County’s Continuum of Care Board, the homeless advisory board to the County Commission, was in a process of drafting a letter to advise cities against passing such laws. (No kudos here to the CoC Board, which has been dragging its feet on drafting and sending this letter for over a year. Indeed, Coconut Creek may not even have considered its ordinance if the CoC had acted in a more timely manner.)

Finally, we shared with Ms. Pyburn a recent ruling in a federal lawsuit brought by Homeless Helping Homeless (Tampa) against the City of Tampa, which saw a panhandling ban there overturned. While she told me that she’d been looking at other case law on panhandling in drafting Coconut Creek’s pending ordinance, she was unfamiliar with this case. Next comes the amazing part.

The ordinance was pulled from Thursday night’s agenda pending significant revisions – this happened over the course of two phone conversations between her and I – which would guarantee the measure would be compliant with the HHH v. Tampa ruling, and would also eliminate language applying to “aggressive panhandling.” I’d also explained to her that that language was redundant relative to existing laws, e.g., Florida statues, which already prohibit the same aggressive behavior in any context.

By comparison with how the city of Fort Lauderdale has reacted with haughty indifference to even mass public outcries against its laws banning panhandling, camping, publicly storing one’s belongings, food sharing and more, City Attorney Pyburn’s open-mindedness was a breath of fresh air.

Now we’ll be watching to see if this fresh air isn’t also of the ‘hot’ variety. (Our experience dictates that we don’t blow the victory trumpets just yet!)  Ms. Pyburn has promised to forward us the amended ordinance as soon as it’s ready, and in advance of the commission’s September 22 meeting, which is when its first reading is now planned.

The strategy in pushing political demands is to start down the road of least resistance. You might get a win by doing that. Just don’t count on it, and always be ready for the next move. We’ll wait and see if we’ll yet have to make one here.

 

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October 22nd Alliance demands investigation into FLPD racism and property seizures

The October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness has requested Fort Lauderdale’s Citizens Police Review Board to investigate allegations of the use of racial slurs by officers who also trashed the property of four homeless persons, according to the victims, two of whom are black, and two white. Following is our letter to the CPRB detailing the reasons for our request.

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Dear Fort Lauderdale Citizens Police Review Board Members:

In my capacity as founder of and organizer with October 22nd to End Homelessness, I learned from a group of homeless individuals early on the afternoon of July 12, 2016, that they had been harassed that morning by three Fort Lauderdale police officers who, these individuals allege, threw away their belongings, detained them for two hours, trespassed them from the entire beach area and, during the course of their interaction, used the racial slurs, “nigger bitch” and “nigger lover,” against the one black and one white woman in the group of four. Also among the group were the white woman’s black boyfriend and a white male.

The incident occurred from about 9 to 11am in the vicinity of A1A and Las Olas Blvd., they told me as I interviewed them about a block from the central bus terminal on NW 1st Street, approximately two hours after the incident occurred.

To add insult to injury, while I was interviewing the four individuals, sitting on the sidewalk just a stone’s throw from city hall, two BSO officers and FLPD Sgt. Jaime Costas, who knows me from my homeless advocacy work, accosted the group and advised them not to sit at this spot because, as he put it, the folks in city hall didn’t want homeless people sitting in view of the building.

When I advised Sgt. Costas that none of the group were violating any laws by unobstructively sitting on the sidewalk, he aggressively approached Erica Muskgrow, the African American woman in the group, grabbed from her a covered plastic cup with what appeared to be beer in it, sniffed it to confirm its contents, then began to put handcuffs on Ms. Muskgrow, stating that he was arresting her because I’d had the audacity to note that the group weren’t breaking the law. Ultimately I, and perhaps Sgt. Costas’s better angels, talked him out of making the arrest.

I did, however report the incident to an Internal Affairs Detective Studers, who unequivocally sought to deter me from filing my complaint, which I did over the phone, and all the while lauded the good work done by Sgt. Costas for the homeless community. I thought Det. Studers, as with all the police involved in this situation, was also, at best, unaccountably biased in his response to an incident of alleged misbehavior on the part of a colleague. For an internal affairs detective, such an approach should be considered unacceptable.

Here’s an account of the incident in the weekly paper, New Times, whose reporter, Jess Swanson, interviewed both the victims and me: http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/homeless-womans-belongings-thrown-out-twice-in-three-weeks-7927606

And here is a letter emailed by Florida ACLU Staff Attorney Adam Tebrugge to City Attorney Cynthia Everett later on the day of the incident. The main focus of his letter was to apprise the city of the problematical nature of its enforcement of the ‘Outdoor Storage Ban.’ As of this writing it has not received a response:

From: Adam Tebrugge
Sent: Tuesday, July 12, 2016 4:09 PM
To: ‘ABoileau@fortlauderdale.gov’
Cc: ‘ceverett@fortlauderdale.gov’
Subject: Destruction of property of homeless citizens

July 12, 2016
Cynthia Everett, Esq.
City Attorney, City of Ft. Lauderdale

Alain Boileau
Assistant City Attorney

Dear Ms. Everett:
Dear Mr. Boileau:

My name is Adam Tebrugge and I am a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida.

We have recently received multiple complaints that the City of Ft. Lauderdale has seized and destroyed the personal property of homeless citizens. Recently the Broward New Times has published several articles that document and report on this activity:

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/fort-lauderdale-trashes-homeless-mans-aids-medicine-7897535 (July 6, 2016)

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/fort-lauderdale-police-put-lives-in-danger-seizing-homeless-property-7880871 (June 28, 2016)

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/fort-lauderdale-police-are-confiscating-homeless-people-s-property-7727706 (April 19, 2016)

The reports we have received, and these media accounts, strongly indicate that the City of Ft. Lauderdale is not even following its own municipal ordinance.

I have just now received additional reports of widespread destruction of property this morning (7/12/16) at Las Olas Blvd. and A1A, on Ft. Lauderdale Beach. Specific officers of the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department have been identified as taking part.

As you are hopefully aware, any confiscation of property must provide the protections of due process of law, guaranteed by the 5th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, and respect the Basic Rights guaranteed by Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution (“All natural persons are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to . . . possess and protect property.”) Additionally, the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the unreasonable search and seizure of property.

In Pottinger v. City of Miami, 810 F. Supp. 1551, 1559 (SD Florida 1992), Judge Atkins specially noted: “For many of us, the loss of our personal effects may pose a minor inconvenience. However, as Carter’s testimony illustrates, the loss can be devastating for the homeless.” As the media reports document, the recent actions by the City of Ft. Lauderdale are more than devastating — they are life threatening when prescription medications are seized. As Judge Atkins concluded in Pottinger: “The property of homeless individuals is due no less protection under the fourth amendment than that of the rest of society. Requiring the City to follow its own written policy with respect to the property of the homeless class members should not be significantly more burdensome than it is with respect to any other property. Accordingly, the court finds the City liable for its unlawful seizures of class members’ property.”

I would respectfully request that you immediately advise all employees of the City of Ft. Lauderdale to stop the confiscation of property in Stranahan Park and elsewhere within the City of Ft. Lauderdale.

Thank you for your attention to this request. Please let me know your response.

Description: 2c_alcu_fl
Adam Tebrugge | Staff Attorney
American Civil Liberties Union of Florida
P.O. Box 21142 Tampa, FL 33622-1142
Direct (813) 288-8390 | atebrugge@aclufl.org
Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself | http://www.aclufl.org

While the letter above makes no mention of the racial slurs, the reference to police violations of homeless persons’ property rights is meaningful both in terms of the July 12 trashing of property and other reports I’ve received from homeless persons of police illegally searching their belongings.

Also, referenced neither in New Times’ story nor the ACLU letter are the names of the officers who were involved in the July 12 incident and who allegedly used the aforementioned racial slurs. This information was shared with me by Erica Muskgrow, Jennifer Shoop, Deondre Smith and Roy (last name unknown) during my July 12 interview of them. Officer J.D. Hancock, Badge #604, used racial slurs; Officer K. Rohloff (unsure about his use of racial slurs); third officer unidentified by name or badge (didn’t use racial slurs nor speak to group). One drove FLPD cruiser #6783.

There should be an internal record of a call from one of the officers, during the time frame of the incident, to have a city dump truck dispatched to the scene, as the individuals have alleged their belongings were trashed and hauled off while the incident was in progress. I am seeking a record of this communication.

Furthermore, I’ve heard at least two accounts of racial slurs being used by FLPD officers Burke and Fernandez, while working their detail at the main branch of the library adjacent to Stranahan Park. One woman alleged that Fernandez referred to her as a “black nigger” during a recent encounter.

It has been over a year since the members of this board addressed racism in the ranks of the FLPD during its meeting of May 11, 2015, which was well attended by board members, city officials and citizens, alike, in the wake of the exposure of racist text messaging by four FLPD officers, who subsequently lost their jobs as a result. While City Manager Lee Feldman only a few months later would go back on his assertion from that meeting – with the rehiring of Officer Jeffery Feldewert – that such racist behavior would not be tolerated, zero tolerance for racism on the part of police must be the order of the day, every day. Here’s what was written about what the city manager said, taken from the minutes of that meeting:

“Mr. Feldman confirmed that the City found the actions of the four terminated Officers to be intolerable, nor would these actions be tolerated by any other individuals employed within the Police Department or the City.”

I urge you to launch a thorough investigation into these allegations of racist and other, possibly illegal, behavior on the part of the above named Fort Lauderdale Police Department officers, and that appropriate disciplinary measures be meted out, including the possible terminations from employment of the officers involved.

I also look forward to a preliminary discussion of these issues at your forthcoming meeting next Monday, August 15, which I and other concerned citizens plan to attend. Thank you and…

Respectfully yours,

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