Broward News

Homeless Bill of Rights Could Block Discrimination, Trump

This week, November 12-20,  is National Homeless and Hunger Awareness Week. And given the election  of President-Elect Donald Trump, who once tried to chase homeless veterans off Fifth Avenue, it's time to pay attention.

Over the past three decades, South Florida cities and counties have implemented laws that criminalize homelessness.  Guided by business leaders like Trump who perceive a threat to their bottom lines, officials have approved laws that have led to courts and jails being clogged with petty offenders unable to pay the smallest of fines and a tax burden that far exceeds the costs of providing housing and services.

Bans on panhandling, camping (in cities lacking sufficient shelter beds), storing property in public space, performing bodily functions (irrespective of access to public restrooms), and sharing food in public have metastasized like cancer. At least one noted and long-time advocate based in San Francisco, Western Regional Advocacy project director Paul Boden, has compared the targeting of homeless people to the most shameful and darkest of social reactions in our history: Jim Crow and Sundown Laws, Ugly Laws, and Japanese internment during World War II.

Activists led by the Florida Homelessness Action Coalition (FLHAC) recently put into motion a plan to bring a Homeless Bill of Rights to the state legislature in 2017. The bill, which can be read here, has been endorsed by many  groups including the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the ACLU, and National Lawyers Guild chapters in South Florida. It would effectively put an end to laws that  disparately target homeless people while also codifying basic human rights to affordable housing, healthcare, food, and more. Three states, responding to the widespread municipal drift toward criminalization, already have passed similar bills: Rhode Island, Illinois, and Connecticut.

“Many people take for granted that we can eat or share a meal, sleep or rest, sit or lie, shower, use the restroom, etc., but people who are homeless or whose housing is precarious are subject to the high number of Florida municipal laws that criminalize such conduct,” noted St. Thomas University law professor Marc-Tizoc Gonzalez. "The Florida Bill of Rights provides Floridians with the opportunity to show that we refuse to make a crime out of being so poor that we cannot afford secure housing.”

Florida cities, in fact, lead the nation when it comes to passing laws restricting public meal sharing, according to a soon-to-be-published study led by Gonzalez in conjunction with FLHAC.

In Fort Lauderdale, city leaders in 2014 passed five ordinances in six months, one focusing on each of the aforementioned life-sustaining activities, before finally yielding somewhat to the public backlash in response to its citing then-90-year-old Arnold Abbott for sharing food at a downtown park and then on Fort Lauderdale Beach, as he’d done for 25 years.

A Broward Circuit Court judge’s injunction against the ordinance’s enforcement, coupled with a multitude of lawsuits against the city, put that ordinance on ice only a month after it was implemented, and there it remains, though it’s still on the books. In addition to Abbott’s suit, Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs just announced its appeal of a federal court ruling issued in late September upholding the law, while two other suits are still awaiting litigation. The other ordinances, meanwhile, have been robustly enforced, especially the bans on panhandling and public property storage, as New Times has reported.

This past September, Coconut Creek temporarily withdrew a measure that would have restricted panhandling after this writer and others complained.

Even Miami, a city whose homeless residents have been somewhat shielded from criminalization in recent decades by virtue of the landmark 1998 Pottinger v. City of Miami ruling, has seen ongoing efforts by city officials to undermine the protections it established. Three years ago, the federal settlement agreement, a response to the horrendous treatment of homeless people in the city through the 1980s, was weakened though left largely intact after the city sought to do away with it altogether.

“Judge Atkins declared 24 years ago in Pottinger that the U.S. Constitution prohibits arresting involuntarily homeless persons for engaging in public acts vital to their existence," says Benjamin Waxman, the ACLU’s lead attorney.  "This was a good start. If we are ever to break the cycle for good, a law must be passed to ensure that homeless persons are treated with dignity and respect."

Hundreds of homeless people have also endorsed the bill of rights campaign. “It’s rough out here,” said Mike Souza, a homeless Fort Lauderdale resident who is now too disabled to work and an avid supporter of the campaign.

Souza, who last month claimed an FLPD cop on detail at the park fished through his belongings, found an unopened beer, and then opened and poured it onto the sidewalk, has seen the indignity to which he and other homeless people have been subjected for far too long. The 56-year-old former roofer also was arrested several years ago simply for being in possession of a milk crate.

Until he gets the housing that service providers continue to promise him, Souza and the state’s tens of thousands of homeless persons would be content just to be able to sit down without the threat of being arrested. A Homeless Bill of Rights could make that a reality.

Jeff Weinberger, cofounder of the October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness and the Florida Homelessness Action Coalition.
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Jeff Weinberger