To begin, an apology of sorts. The work I’m engaged in, to understate it a bit, is overwhelming. And the way this unfortunately goes, at least for now, is that the last task on the list is to update the website. Hopefully we’ll be able to do better going forward.
It’s been well over a month since, with the help of allies, I organized demonstrations to call out Fort Lauderdale’s Beach Business Improvement District investment of roughly $65,000 – approved unanimously by Mayor Jack Seiler and the City Commission – to enhance two bourgeois food events connected to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Of course, it’s the BBID’s job to promote the beach as a tourist attraction. Fort Laudy’s beach is all about those tourism dollars, and it’s the primary engine that drives the city’s economy. But in a city which, in 2014, notoriously arrested and fined folks for sharing food with our hungry and homeless citizens, and has plans to do it again if city leaders feel that conditions will allow it, the haves v. have-nots imagery stands out starkly against a vision of fairness and democracy for the majority. So we’ll pick up where we left off back in February.
Teflon Chefs and Callous Commissioners
By the time of our protest actions on February 24 and 28, respectively held at the hoity toity foodie events at the Bonnet House and the Ritz-Carlton, it was clear that it was time, as the saying goes, to stick a fork in any hope that we’d receive a positive response to our demands, because sho nuff they were done. And not on the rare, but on the common side, in other words, overcooked. Our call-outs of celeb chefs like Robert Irvine, Ted ‘Ted Doesn’t Talk’ Allen and the cast of the hit Food Network show, Chopped, slid off them like sautéed mushrooms slide off a Teflon pan. No residue. Forgotten. Digested or not, it’s all the same to the gentry.
Despite our emails and tweets calling on them to stand up for the hungry and unhoused, these chefs weren’t about biting the feeding hands of our commissioners, who had so callously and clumsily buttered these chefs’ gourmet bread. And so, the celebrity chefs along with their engorged cohort, who do their charity only when it’s safe, keep getting richer and more famous, while their underlings tend to the crèmes brûlées, and if those sharing food with poor folk are criminalized, oh well, then it must be because it’s their just dessert.
Beyond chefdom and homeless-hating commissioners, however, we did get one reply (of sorts) to our call outs. FIU Chaplin School Dean Mike Hampton, whose school benefits to the tune of over $20 million from the SOBE fest, responded to our asking him to condemn the banning of food sharing by pointing to the charity his school engages in by providing food to shelters and the like. A friend of mine noted that, 60 years ago, this would’ve been like saying ‘Some of my best friends are black’ in response to demands to condemn Jim Crow. So, Dean Hampton, we’re happy to know some of your best friends give food to peeps who are hungry. (But what about laws that would have them fined for doing just that?! C’mon Dean, digest it.)
From the unaccountable to the commendably accountable we go. Mike Clary, a senior staffer with the Sun-Sentinel, has covered issues related to homelessness for a long time, along with his other reporting. He’s interviewed me on occasion, and I’ve always found his stories to be well-researched and balanced. So when he came out on March 25 with a flat out hit piece demonizing homeless folk who hang out at downtown Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan Park, I wasn’t the only local who was miffed, and a bit shocked.
The paper, to its credit, replied positively to my emailed appeal to respond to the article by offering me 500+ words in a ‘Viewpoint’ column, which was published on April 5. I’ve included it below for any of you who might have issues with the paper’s paywall.
As for Mike Clary and commendable accountability, he called me the morning the piece came out and with humble magnanimity and great humor started off, ‘This is Mike Clary, so-called journalist.’ I was floored with gratitude to hear the echo of words I’d harshly, but not wrongly, deployed in my opinion piece. During the 20 minute chat that followed, Mike acknowledged that his piece hadn’t been balanced. So, one awful piece of journalism aside, Mike Clary is my hero of the month. In a world where too often nobody seems accountable for anything from propaganda passing as journalism to global ecocide, Mike was assertively accountable. Big prop’s to you, Mr. Clary! Now here’s that editorial:
Prejudice only worsens city’s homeless problem
by Jeff Weinberger
As an organizer and activist working toward ending homelessness, perhaps the greatest obstacles to achieving that aim that I and my like-minded allies encounter day-to-day are prejudice and ignorance. And fear which, when left to muddy the waters of compassion and reason, can readily turn to hate. This is natural. After all, when we refuse to address our problems with compassion and reason, and with a sincere desire to get to their roots, the next best thing will always regrettably turn on a desire to simply make them go away or to destroy what we perceive to be their cause.
Sadly, compassion and reason too often seem to have completely checked out of our social discourse, where that still exists, to have been replaced by the dictates of power and money. And for the maintenance of power and money for the few, the demonization and consequent criminalization of those we deem outside the bounds of respectable society has always served a vital function. More sadly, the very institutions that we count on to get to the truth of such matters, e.g., newspapers which employ so-called journalists, too often abandon that role in favor of serving as mouthpieces for the gentry.
While these sentiments of hate and a desire to destroy homeless folk may not be explicitly stated in last week’s Sun-Sentinel article, “Makeover effort stymied as downtown park overrun by homelessness, vandalism,” they imbue its tone from start to finish, from the headline to the closing quote in which Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler acknowledges first his frustration over the homeless folk who hang out around the city’s centerpiece, Stranahan Park, and then his hope “that more of homeless will seek and accept assistance.”
To the uninitiated, while those words may look good on their surface, they couldn’t be more disingenuous. The mayor well knows that the city provides virtually nothing in the way of shelter and services for those in need. Funds for whatever shelter and services are available come from outside the city’s own coffers. And when the city was granted federal funds to administer a Housing First program to house 22 chronically homeless persons, it was discovered last year that its Housing Authority was charging Broward County, through which the funds flowed, far above fair market rents. Over $60,000 had to be returned to the feds owing to its exploitative negligence.
The main character in this article, Fort Lauderdale Woman’s Club President Jo Ann Smith, meanwhile, uses her space to blame the homeless folk, who have nowhere else to go and for whom the environs of the park are as good as it gets, for everything from killing her mosquitofish, to their copious excretions and thieving of the aluminum stakes which identify the plants in her would-be botanicum. And of course their criminality must, according to the logic of hate, run even deeper, so she adds for good measure, “I think they use them as weapons.”
Reacting to the appearance of feces on one of the park’s walkways, Smith assumes, “It’s disrespect.” But does she ever consider that it may have been her own disrespect which presumed she can have an idyllic park adjacent to her idyllic club in a city and a nation which, rather than providing housing and services for the unhoused and downtrodden, treats them like human garbage and then criminalizes their very existence? Perhaps she would consider that, but the reporter never asked.
Jeff Weinberger is an organizer and co-founder of October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness
Copyright © 2016, Sun Sentinel
Bruised Broward Bureaucrat
While that title might qualify for the tongue-twister of the year award, the twisted state of political reality in our county deserves only scorn. I’ll spare sharing with you, kind readers, the litany of corruption, negligence, indifference and mismanagement to which local politicians at every level of government, from school boards to the county commission, have by turns subjected us. Many of you, no doubt, already know a lot of that history anyway. Not to mention, our focus needs always to have a homelessness angle. That’s why we’re here.
To get down to it, the most powerful man in Broward County’s homeless care system is in the process of being exposed as a fraud. By yours truly. On top of one lie, his claim that he sent an important policy-related memo to the county administrator, which he asserted last October 7 to the entire Continuum of Care Board – the body which advises the county commission on homelessness-related issues – this man more recently sought to CHA – 3rd person of CYA – by refusing to immediately acknowledge the non-existence of that very memo, which I’d been seeking to obtain via a Florida Public Records Act request. Instead, he sought to charge me a fee, estimated at first by his office to be $118, for a public document he knew didn’t exist. Knowingly misleading someone in the fulfillment of a FL statutory record request has the potential to be charged as a 1st Degree Misdemeanor.
The icing on this shit cake is that the memo, which we now know he didn’t send, was allegedly to obtain direction from the county administrator on how the CoC Board should address concerns about criminalizing homelessness to municipalities throughout the county, most obviously Fort Lauderdale, which is Homeless Hate Central. The CoC Board has done virtually nothing to address criminalization of homelessness, even in the face of new federal guidelines which call for defunding communities that continue to pass laws targeting homeless folk, like camping, panhandling and food sharing bans.
His misstep, as of the week past, has been shared with the entire county commission as well as all CoC Board members. As this story unfolds, we’ll keep you posted.
Human Rights for Unhoused People
Our proposal to Broward County to add ‘housing status’ as a protected category under its Human Rights Act, which rocketed through two committees not long after it was proposed in June, 2015, has fallen prey to that ubiquitous governmental monster, aka The Bureaucracy (including the aforementioned Bruised Broward Bureaucrat). It is, however, still very much alive, moving forward now at a tortoise’s rather than a hare’s pace. A hopeful thought might be found in knowing who won that race.
Aside from the support of our local allies and members of October 22nd Alliance, we’ve recently also gotten the powerful backing of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, whose senior staff attorney, Eric Tars, provided Human Rights Board Chairman Michael Rajner a detailed letter that makes an eloquent case for our proposal. The letter also argues for going beyond just ‘housing status’ to include ‘source-of-income status’ as a protected category under the Act. Source-of-income protections exist in communities across the country, and have long been touted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition as a vital legal shield to protect people living in poverty, e.g., former inmates and people surviving on governmental assistance, against discrimination.
A workshop meeting called last month by Chairman Rajner for the sake of gathering more information for board members about homelessness from the Continuum of Care Board was very well-received. The Human Rights Board is the body which ultimately will advise the County Commission on the question of taking up the proposed amendment as an agenda item. The 9-member Commission would then, we hope, vote the amendment proposal into law.