Broward News

Fort Lauderdale Police Are Confiscating Homeless People’s Property

In 2014, Fort Lauderdale commissioners passed a city ordinance that prohibited “personal property to be stored on public property.” The law states that "'store' means any action to place, leave, park, locate, or set an item upon the public property for a period of time in excess of twenty-four (24) hours and at a distance in excess of twenty (20) feet from the occupant." Effectively, this prevents homeless people from keeping belongings.

The ordinance explains that police are to issue warnings, and if belongings are not removed within 36 hours, they will be confiscated. Individuals then have 30 days to reclaim from a holding facility or the property will be destroyed.

This week, the ordinance was enforced, shaking up the homeless community near Stranahan Park. A handful of bright-orange warning tickets has been issued.

“When will the city start treating the real estate developers and bankers the way it treats the homeless?” says an anonymous homeless person who runs social media under the handle Invisible People Fort Lauderdale. “It could affect people's health and well-being if they take meds or IDs," he told New Times. 

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department tells New Times that it has spent the past few weeks trying to educate people near Stranahan Park about the storage ban. “Unattended property that has been located in this area by our officers has been red-tagged, warning the owners of removal of the property if not claimed within 24 hours.”

The storage ban was part of a series of laws passed by the city to crack down on a homeless population in Fort Lauderdale. Collectively, critics called them "homeless hate laws." Among them was an ordinance that made it illegal to share food outdoors unless portable toilets and sinks were available — effectively outlawing feeding of the homeless by charitable groups. The move resulted in several lawsuits and Fort Lauderdale being ridiculed in headlines and TV shows around the world. Police largely stopped enforcing the ban following the negative publicity. 

Homeless advocates say that the storage ban too went largely unenforced until now, three weeks after the Fort Lauderdale Women’s Club, which is located beside Stranahan Park, complained about homeless people who gather there. The Sun Sentinel reported that a $103,000 redesign of Stranahan Park was meant to make “the public space less inviting as a hub for the homeless.” Instead, it “seemed to make them more visible on the sidewalks around the park.”

"We are facing a lot of unhealthy issues such as piles of feces, urine, and trash thrown into the flowers instead of trash cans that they refuse to use," Women’s Club President Jo Ann Smith told the Sentinel. “It really frightens a lot of people to come here... We have had people arrive and turn right around and leave. And we lose a lot of rentals."

Homeless-rights activists are not surprised. “Clearly the FLPD is suddenly responding to pressure from the usual big interests,” says Nathan Pim, a Food Not Bombs member who also runs a blog, Resist Fort Lauderdale Homeless Hate Laws. “I think the amount of criminal laws being applied specifically to people on one sidewalk in downtown is absurd.”

On Monday, April 18, Pim spoke to homeless people about the storage ban in Stranahan Park. He reports that Fort Lauderdale Police were handing out the red citations to homeless people even sitting beside their property.

“My concern is just for the suffering it creates. Everyone there I talked to last night was already quite upset about it,” Pim says. “Some volunteers have already been scrambling bins and suitcases to them since last night.” 

Update: A prior version of this story quoted a draft version of the ordinance which stated that it affected belongings kept less than 20 feet from a person. The ordinance affects property stored in excess of 20 feet. The correction has made above. 
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Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson