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