According to Fort Lauderdale homeless advocates, police tried to disperse a downtown encampment over the weekend, a move the advocates say underscores officials' failure to protect one of the city's most vulnerable populations as COVID-19 cases mount across South Florida.
Police this past Sunday told people camped behind a Salvation Army shelter that they were violating a city ordinance that bars them from tenting within 1,000 feet of a school or childcare center — but the ordinance isn't officially on the books and has yet to receive a final vote from the city commission. The proposed ordinance had a first reading at the beginning of the month, but the final vote, scheduled for March 17, never happened because the meeting was canceled.
Jeff Weinberger, who runs the Broward-based support organization October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, tells New Times he received phone calls Sunday afternoon from residents who were camped out behind the Salvation Army alerting him that police officers were there asking people to leave. Weinberger says he spoke with a police supervisor, who ultimately determined that those at the encampment were not in violation of any city laws.
A spokeswoman for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department disputes that report, insisting nobody was asked to leave but that an officer "may have mentioned a potential ordinance."
"Officers were on scene encouraging compliance with national social distancing guidelines," spokeswoman Casey Liening told New Times in a statement.
But the officers' actions appear to be out of step with federal guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published recommendations advising local officials not to clear homeless encampments because doing so can cut off residents from vital services, increasing the potential for disease spread.
"Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19," the CDC states.
Over the past decade, the relationship between the City of Fort Lauderdale and its homeless population has been fraught with tension as city leaders have passed a series of laws in an effort to scatter those residents. Those efforts, critics say, have only hampered the quality of life for those living on the streets. Spokespeople for the city commissioners did not respond to multiple requests for comment Sunday and Monday.
The CDC guidelines also say local officials should ensure public restrooms have running water and are stocked with soap. If there's no access to public restrooms, officials are urged to provide portable units for any encampments with more than ten people.
That's not the case in Fort Lauderdale, however. Last week, city and county officials moved to shut down all nonessential activity, which led to the closure of public restrooms.
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Lafonda Stewart, age 42, lives in an encampment behind the Broward County Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale. In a video shared with New Times, she says most people she knows who are homeless have resorted to urinating and defecating in bushes and on sidewalks and streets.
"If we don't have no bathroom close enough, we have to go wherever," Stewart says.
On a recent afternoon, after officials effectively placed the city on lockdown, Stewart was talking with a friend, who is also homeless, about their frustrations over the bathroom closures. Stewart turned her phone's camera on her friend, 47-year-old Gordon Coish.
"All right, look, we got no port-a-johns. We got nothin'. Everything's shut down. Guess where we're pissin' and shittin'?" Coish says in the video. "Right in your front and backyards in the middle of the night when you're sleepin'... This is how we get it out. We don't have a choice."