Jeffrey Clifton used to sit on the bench on the corner of Federal Highway and Southeast Second Street. It’s unclear how long he rested there—some locals estimate more than a decade, but others in their 20s claim they can’t remember a time when the elderly homeless man with piercing blue eyes wasn’t there. A fixture on the downtown Fort Lauderdale streets, he was cared about by residents who drove past him every day for years.
In a city known for its homeless hate laws criminalizing outdoor feedings and sleeping on park benches, Clifton elicited compassion. According to anecdotes, Clifton never accepted money from passersby. But he always accepted food and it wasn’t uncommon for people to cook an extra plate, wrap it up, and drop it off after dinnertime. No one really knows why Clifton was homeless. Some say they saw him refuse to be taken to a shelter. Others say he had a twin brother who would unsuccessfully try to wrangle him home.
But, after a sweltering mid-August week, Clifton’s dead body was spotted in the field behind the bench where he frequently sat. Residents were devastated. Over 50 people signed an obituary guest book recounting little stories they garnered over the years. Robin Merrill, an artist at Upper Room Art Gallery, didn’t think it was enough. She has spent the last two months trying to plan a memorial fit for perhaps the most beloved homeless man in all of Fort Lauderdale.
“He had these really crystal blue eyes and he’d look at you, not in an aggressive or crazy or hateful way, but in a way that made you reflect,” Merril says. “The sight of him brought out compassion in people.”
At first, Merrill tried to turn Clifton’s bench into what she calls, a “public art piece.” The weekend after his death she wrapped the bench in a quilt and welcomed locals to leave notes and other trinkets for him. But after three days it was taken down. Merrill says she called the bus bench company for permission. They declined, saying the art was a hazard and caused drivers to rubberneck and jam on the breaks.
Instead, the company—which Merrill says requested to go unnamed—offered to create a bench ad as a public service announcement. With Clifton’s image, it would remind those who drove past it items they could donate. It would appear around benches all across downtown Fort Lauderdale. But, unfortunately, the bench that Clifton sat at was already being rented. Merrill remains optimistic that once the business understands the message, they might be willing to swap their ad unto another bench. “It should definitely be up by the end of the year,” Merrill says. “I want something positive to come out of this.”
Merrill has also faced bureaucratic hurdles by the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office. At first, she tried to claim Clifton’s remains for a memorial. But she had to wait for them to go unclaimed for 120 days. The costs for cremation and a service though are very high. Since she says Clifton liked being outdoors, she didn’t think a service at a church would be something that he would’ve wanted. When she heard that the county cremates unclaimed remains and sprinkles them out at sea, Merrill thought that might be more in line with Clifton’s wishes.
“I thought it was beautiful thing the county does and was happy to know that my tax dollars are being used to do this,” she says.
Merrill thought the county would tell her when they are going to release Clifton’s ashes into the ocean. Then, she thought those who cared about him could rent a boat and do a small service beside the county’s boat. The county, however, refused.
Now, Merrill is unsure what to do—to claim the body or not. She also doesn’t know the best place to have Clifton’s memorial. Local businesses declined to host the event and the company that owns the lot where Clifton’s body was found turned down Merrill when she asked if she could hold the service there.
It was discouraging for her at first. But then she had a lightbulb moment and thought that she could hold the event on the street in front of the bench. “I remembered that we could get a permit for a street closure,” she says. Now, Merrill is planning an event with live music and plenty of flowers.
“I feel like our community is grieving and there was this need to do something to honor him,” Merrill says. “I can’t even tell you how much of an outpouring of support there’s been to do something positive after his death.”