What Should Fort Lauderdale Do for the Homeless?

Have you walked through Stranahan Park lately -- or ever? It's a nice place. But with throngs of homeless people living there, it's also a reminder that Broward County has a significant problem: About a quarter of the 3,225 homeless people in the county did not have a bed at a shelter when the last analysis took place in 2009, and officials expect an increase when updated data are released this year.

In this week's cover story, we addressed the issue of homelessness in Broward County and brought you inside the Homeless Voice shelter in Hollywood, an unconventional facility because it is privately funded and has much looser rules than government-funded shelters. The recession has increased the number of homeless people in our area, and the deluge on the current system is more than it can handle.

Stranahan Park has become an unavoidable talking point when this issue of homelessness is addressed in Fort Lauderdale. Downtown businesses complain about the presence of homeless people there while charities provide meals in the park, giving people reason to stay. To ease the problem, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler is working to establish two feeding centers, one north of the New River and one south. This project was covered last week in the Sun-Sentinel, and it has been an ongoing discussion among city officials for years. Each time a location is proposed, the neighborhood opposes the measure.

New Times caught up with homeless advocate Laura Hansen of the Broward County Coalition to End Homelessness to hear her perspective on the issue.

What does your organization provide?
On a community level, we do education, we do advocacy, we work with the representatives and the senators in Florida and in D.C. to try and create awareness for the issue and what might be a  better way of handling the issue.

Give us an overview of homelessness in our area.
We categorize people into a couple of different groups: chronic and crisis. Most homeless people are what we would call the crisis homeless. They're homeless for not a lot of time; they're very motivated to get back into a housed situation. They do very well in a shelter environment where there's a schedule, there's a routine, and they try and motivate them to get their résumé done, look for work, address their problems, and get their lives together. It's about 80 percent of our homeless population.

The other percentage of our homeless population are what we call the chronics. These are people who have been homeless for a longer period of time, probably have more persistent mental illness, probably have more substance-abuse issues and that sort of thing, and they are difficult to rehabilitate. The chronic generally are not going to want to go into a strict enviornment where they have to play ball and play by someone else's rules.

What's the big deal with the homeless people in Stranahan Park?
I have a hard time understanding, and I've been doing this for 15 years. I have never had a problem, not once have I felt threatened, uncomfortable, scared, anything. The best I can come up with is that these people live in a different world. They think there's some big homeless system that these people could go to for help. They don't know that all the beds are full. They don't know that there's no free mental health treatment. They don't know that there aren't any jobs. You look at a homeless person, you don't want to think that could be me, holy shit. 

Do you think the feeding centers are a good idea?
They're building them because they want to be able to arrest the homeless people in Stranahan Park because there's some businesses who find homeless people unsightly. That's what it's about -- aesthetics. They're going to go there and eat, and then what are they going to do for the rest of the day? There's no place for them to sleep. We haven't created a place for them to go. I mean, food is one of the basic needs; it's not all of them.They feel safe at Stranahan Park right now, so they're hanging out there.

So do you think this initiative is misguided or on track?
I don't think it's misguided. I think it'd be nice for them to have places they can go for food. I don't think it'd be nice to arrest all the people in Stranahan Park, and if that's their motive, which it may be, I don't think that's a good idea. Homelessness is really an economic problem. It's not an individual failing. The difference between people who are poor and housed and people who are homeless is usually about $100 a month.

Do you think most of the people in Stranahan Park are chronically homeless?
Yes. I've been there. I bring them blankets and stuff when it's cold and that kind of thing. And I know some of them, and some of them I've known for years. I don't know what the big deal is. I don't know why people feel threatened by homelessness.

Do you think Mayor Seiler is handling the issue well?
I'd like you to put this in the blog what I have to say about Jack Seiler. I think Jack Seiler is a fantastic human being. I really do. I think he's compassionate and intelligent. He has supported our coalition in the past, but I also think that he's in a job where he's got two competing interests -- his own moral interest versus the demands of the business community. And how is he going to balance those?

New Times reached out to Mayor Seiler for an interview and will update accordingly.

Follow The Juice on Twitter: @TheJuiceBPB.

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