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.
“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.)
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