A homeless woman sleeps on a bench in downtown Fort Lauderdale. (Photo: Mike Cohen/Flickr)

America's Spring Break Hot Spot Adopts Draconian Solution to Homelessness

Ordinances in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will fine and lock up homeless people for sleeping on the street and panhandling.
Sep 22, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

People living on the streets are usually there because they lack the funds for permanent housing or suffer from mental health or addiction problems. That’s not stopping officials in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from criminalizing the homeless. The City Commission in America’s spring break capital has passed two ordinances that send a clear “you’re not welcome” message to its down-and-out residents.

One of the ordinances makes it illegal for homeless people to sleep on public property downtown. They can also forget about asking a passerby to spare a dime because the second ordinance criminalizes panhandling at busy intersections. Individuals who violate the ordinances will be slapped with a $500 fine—because, you know, they have so much extra cash on hand—or 60 days in jail.

"I'm just an ordinary man with extraordinary problems," one of the city’s homeless residents, Steven James, told city commissioners during a hearing prior to a vote, according to the Sun Sentinel. James, a Desert Storm veteran, told the commission that he became homeless after the 2008 economic crash devastated the job market.

"Now that I fought for my country, I can't sleep on the street, because you all want to round me up?" James told the commission. "It's not right."

This isn’t Fort Lauderdale’s first attempt at a harsh crackdown on the 2,810 homeless residents in the area. This spring the city commissioners enacted an ordinance that gives local law enforcement officers the authority to confiscate a homeless person’s belongings. Police simply have to give an individual a 24-hour warning before confiscating his or her belongings. Those items are then kept in storage for 30 days unless the person comes to pay a fine or provide evidence that he or she doesn’t have any money to cover it. If neither of those things happens, the city has the right to permanently trash everything.

The Florida hot spot is not alone in its draconian approach to people who are living on the streets. In July a report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty detailed the ways nearly 200 American cities coast to coast are criminalizing the homeless. In 53 percent of the cities, the report’s authors found it’s now illegal to sit or sleep on a sidewalk. A full 76 percent of the municipalities included in the report make it illegal to beg in certain public places, a 20 percent jump since 2011.

The Fort Lauderdale City Commission’s meeting minutes reveal that it referenced a 2009 report from the United States Department of Justice’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. However, it doesn’t seem as though the five commissioners, who voted unanimously to criminalize begging and sleeping on the sidewalk, read the document. Ordinances that enforce “sidewalk behavior”—prohibiting lying or sitting on the sidewalk—are included in the report’s section on responses to homelessness that have been found to be ineffective. Those approaches have also been overturned in the nation’s courts.

“There have been successful class-action legal challenges to arrests of homeless people for sleeping in public places and carrying out other ‘life-sustaining functions,’ ” write the report’s authors. The report notes that court decisions have generally ruled in favor of plaintiffs who are involuntarily homeless. “If your community does not have enough shelter beds to house all the homeless people, a court is likely to rule, based on precedent, that homelessness is not a choice and thus involuntary,” they write.

"If you call 211 right now, you will find there is a waiting list [for housing]. This is especially true for mentally ill persons and women with children,” Frank Pontillo, a volunteer who helps a local church provide services to the homeless, told New Times Broward Palm Beach.

Arresting their way to homeless-free streets might seem a viable solution to city officials in Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere, but the people getting fined and locked up need help, not a debt they can’t pay or jail time. Along with recommending that municipalities lobby “for more resources for mental health and substance abuse,” the Department of Justice report endorses a “housing first” approach to homelessness.

“This strategy for housing chronically homeless people puts them into their own permanent housing units first instead of first treating the underlying problems to make them ‘housing ready,’ ” according to the repot.

A housing-first approach saved Charlotte, N.C., $1.8 million in 2013. The city built an 85-unit building to house homeless residents, resulting in 447 fewer visits to emergency rooms and 372 fewer days spent in hospitals. Similar initiatives to erect tiny houses for the homeless in Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore., are also following the housing-first model.

Meanwhile, homeless advocates in Fort Lauderdale expect the city to up the ante on its unsympathetic approach. New prohibitions on feeding people living on the streets are expected in the fall.

“If they outlaw feeding people, they will be sending desperate people into the streets, and guess what? They will find tourists with purses to snatch or break in homes and cars. Desperate hungry people will do desperate things. The city needs to think through their plan,” said Pontillo.