Skinny and bearded but clean and still wearing a hospital bracelet, James Watkins has a complaint. On Tuesday, the 51-year-old says city workers threw out his belongings — including his bike and three antiviral medications prescribed to treat his HIV.
"I thought someone had robbed me," Watkins tells New Times. "I have to take my medicine two times everyday or else my stomach hurts, I start throwing up, and I get bloody urine. It gets so bad, it could kill me."
Watkins is one of many whom the city of Fort Lauderdale targeted Tuesday. Witnesses report that at 9 a.m., city workers arrived at Stranahan Park downtown to pressure-clean the sidewalk and empty trash bins. They say city workers then began hurling unattended bags and suitcases into a city dump truck without warning. At least three people are missing property, although that number may be higher.
Advocates contend the homeless are being unfairly targeted in the city's efforts to clean up one of the most troubled sections of downtown. Tuesday morning was the second time in fewer than two weeks that homeless folks' belongings have been taken.
In 2014, city commissioners passed a law that prohibited “personal property to be stored on private property,” which effectively prevents homeless people from keeping belongings. But the homeless and activists say the city is improperly trying to deal with complaints that passersby feel threatened.
"People should know that police are not enforcing the ordinance the way it was written," says Food Not Bombs member Haylee Becker after helping two women retrieve their confiscated belongings. "There's no notification. There's no order."
"It's legalized, state sanctioned sadism, and it must stop," says Jeff Weinberger, an activist with the October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness. "Without medication, [Watkins] will soon die."
The City of Fort Lauderdale and Fort Lauderdale Police have not responded to repeated requests for comments on reports about confiscating homeless belongings. We'll update this post when we hear back.
Daniel Soat, who has lived in the park for several days, says: "I was baffled. [City workers] were throwing everything — a couple nice bags, some suitcases, a few black garbage bags — in the back of a dump truck."
Mike Souza, another witness who has lived in the park even longer, says: "A lot of property was taken, and it looks like it was just thrown in the trash. I have nothing on the city workers; they were just doing their job. [But] the City is really cracking down on us."
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This is the second time in fewer than two weeks that the homeless report their belongings being taken. In April, police red-tagged belongings and warned they would be seized within 24 hours. On June 24, police posted a memo listing the confiscated property of 26 people — including one woman's blood pressure medication. Three witnesses say on Tuesday, their belongings were thrown into a dump truck.
Johnny Watkins (no relation to James) says his nephew's clothes were thrown away, along with some belongings of the woman who was outposted beside him.
In addition to his HIV medication, James Watkins reports that three suitcases and his bicycle were taken. The only belongings he has are his clothes: a shirt, a pair of shorts, a pair of black sneakers, two white socks with holes, and a beige coat that he will now sleep on.
The first time Watkins's bike was taken, he needed several days to figure out the procedure to reclaim it at the Fort Lauderdale Police station. Tears pooled in Watkins's eyes when he learned that his belongings had been thrown out this time. "It's just wrong," he says, shaking his head. "What can I do now? They threw out all I own."