Lake Worth's New Law Criminalizes Homelessness, Critics Say

Because the homeless don't have it hard enough already...
Because the homeless don't have it hard enough already...
Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr Creative Commons

Fort Lauderdale is the city that made headlines worldwide in 2014 when officers arrested a 90-year-old man for feeding the homeless in defiance of a city ordinance. But cities around the country have been enacting laws to make life uncomfortable for homeless people and drive them away. The latest municipality enacting so-called "homeless hate laws"? Lake Worth. 

Last Tuesday, the Lake Worth City Commission passed by a vote of 3-2 an ordinance that extended the same regulations that apply to public parks and made them apply to all public city property — meaning that these areas now have a curfew and anyone trespassing after hours could face arrest. The move affects City Hall and a downtown Cultural Plaza, and critics say the only reason for it is so cops have a pretext to arrest homeless people who are sleeping or loitering — essentially criminalizing their very existence. 

As the city agenda explained:

The Ordinance amends regulations regarding City parks to extend those regulations to “public property”. “Public property” is defined in the Ordinance as property zoned as “public” and owned by the City. Examples of “public property” include, but are not limited, to the Downtown Cultural Plaza, City Hall complex, shuffleboard court complex and water/electric utilities and public service complex. As currently provided for parks, the Ordinance will prohibit persons from being in or on “public property” after the posted closing hours. The closing hours are to be set by City resolution (to be provided at second reading). It is anticipated that the closing hours shall be from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., seven days a week.

Commissioner Chris McVoy suggested to his fellow commissioners that the move seemed discriminatory and would not solve the homeless problem. “We can’t arrest our way out of this situation,” he said. But other commissioners said it wasn't a move against the homeless. The American Civil Liberties Union reportedly warned commissioners that it would take action if the law is applied only to the homeless. 

Lake Worth residents intend to protest Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Lake Worth City Hall. 

Niko Segal-Wright, 24, works at the Lord’s Place, a homeless-services provider for Palm Beach County. He learned of the city's move about a month ago, he says, and is helping to organize the protest. "I have been concerned with the rights of homeless people since I moved to Sarasota in 2010 and saw the same type of criminalization happening there," he says. "It seems to follow a similar theme: Business owners become concerned that homeless people are driving away customers, but instead of acting like good community members and working to end homelessness, they try to push the problem into somebody else’s backyard by creating laws that criminalize homelessness."

So when this ordinance was put on the table, "a group of us who were concerned about it met and decided to stand up for homeless rights in Lake Worth. I think the biggest problem for homeless people in Lake Worth is a lack of services, and that is the truth that the City Commission is running away from. The Lewis Center is the point of entry for all homeless services in the county, and it is constantly overfull. It just doesn’t make sense to criminalize sleeping in public areas if there are no other places for homeless people to go. If a homeless person gets arrested even once, we are adding another level of stigma that will make it more difficult for that person to get a job for their entire life. As an employee of the Lord’s Place, I know that economic self-sufficiency is possibly the most important factor in ending homelessness for someone, and this law is only making it more difficult for homeless people to do that." 

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-dade Homeless Trust, said, "We want to end homelessness, but we also can't criminalize homelessness. Ultimately local governments that do that are ill-advised and will be looked upon unfavorably by the courts."

Protesters are demanding three things, says Segal-Wright: 

1. That the city rescind ordinance 2016-06, which puts closing times on all public areas.
2. That a public meeting be called, which includes the voices of grassroots organizations and homeless people themselves, to discuss more-intelligent solutions to homelessness in our community.
3. That several portalets be installed in the downtown area to give homeless people temporary relief.

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