What Happens When the Big Tent Folds?

Broward's ballyhooed new homeless shelter won't clear the streets of all vagrants. But the police might.

Chris seems like the guy next door. Thirtysomething, well-built, clean-shaven, quick with conversation. He's spent most of his life in South Florida, making a living working in restaurants near the beach.

But Chris doesn't live next door to anyone. He's been out of housing and on the streets for three years. It's his choice, he says, because rents are too high. And he's tired of buying things only to have them stolen or repossessed. He has a regular place to sleep in a nook off Oakland Park Boulevard and carries his meager belongings with him in a tan bag.

Chris isn't his real name. He wouldn't give it. But his story is real and typical of hundreds of Broward County's homeless. In the county's current multimillion-dollar plan to solve its homeless problem, people like Chris will likely be ignored.

Chris steers clear of Fort Lauderdale's homeless encampment in a downtown parking lot, known as Tent City. A group of middle-aged men having a meal at the beach on Thanksgiving eve said they consider Tent City "legal anarchy" where the homeless go to buy and use drugs, where fights are picked for no reason, where personal belongings get stolen during the course of a shower.

And the men, like Chris, likely won't use the $7.7 million Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) set to begin construction after the holidays. They have jobs and don't have addictions, they claim. They don't want rules and expectations guiding their lives. They just want to live on the street.

But many Fort Lauderdale politicians would prefer not to see any homeless on the street, especially grown men walking through downtown carrying their belongings. Instead city officials want the homeless to find direction inside the HAC -- a 200-bed emergency shelter that will offer counseling and referrals to alcohol- and drug-abuse facilities, help with job training and placement, and aid in securing housing. When the HAC opens in January 1999, Tent City will come down, and any homeless person who isn't in some kind of treatment program someplace will be expected to leave town or could face arrest.

"It couldn't open soon enough for me," Fort Lauderdale Vice Mayor Tim Smith says of the HAC, implying as well that Tent City can't close soon enough. "Every human being has a responsibility to help themselves. If help is offered, you gotta take it, or you gotta go away."

"Our plan is that when the HAC is operative, Tent City will close," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle says. "We feel under the law that having that facility open, we can enforce our no-trespass laws. It's our intent to close Tent City and enforce our laws."

Homeless advocates, while opposing Tent City almost as vehemently as politicians because of its cramped and depressing conditions, say this plan to keep the homeless out of sight could put the city in court.

"I'm sure they [Fort Lauderdale officials] intend to arrest people for being on the street, but they'll face some trouble for that," says Janet Riley, a lawyer with Florida Legal Services, an agency that offers legal help to the poor. Riley sued the city in 1994 on behalf of its homeless residents because of the unhealthy and crowded conditions in Tent City.

"You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that Fort Lauderdale is going to open up that HAC and think that's the end of the homeless problem," Riley says. "I think the HAC is a great thing, a vital thing, but we cannot think it'll be the end-all and be-all of this problem."

To city officials the homeless "problem" is that which they see, the soiled and lost souls panhandling money on highway exit ramps, the drunken ones sleeping in downtown doorways. The HAC will give officials the authority, as Naugle says, to take someone to treatment or to enforce laws to keep those folks off the street.

The reason police aren't doing that now is because of a lawsuit known as the Pottinger case. Michael Pottinger is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the city of Miami over its handling of the homeless. Federal Judge C. Clyde Atkins ruled in 1992 that the city had to provide safe zones where the homeless could bathe and sleep without fear of arrest.

Fort Lauderdale officials interpreted Pottinger to mean they could not arrest park vagrants without a "safe zone" and so erected Tent City in late 1993.

Since the lawsuit was filed in 1988, Miami has designed a plan to help the homeless that includes job training and placement, mental-health counseling, and addiction treatment. The city has promised to open three assistance centers, one of which is already open in Overtown, and has implemented a countywide food-and-beverage tax that brings in $6 million a year to pay for it all. Miami's strategy has won accolades from the Clinton administration and from city administrators across the nation.

In light of that progress, Miami officials have asked Atkins to eliminate the safe zones and free police to make arrests when appropriate. The nearly ten-year-old Pottinger case is in settlement negotiations and a resolution is expected perhaps by the end of the year. Once a decision is reached, Fort Lauderdale officials will know better if the HAC will enable them to clear their downtown streets of homeless people.

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