On the way to the beach two Fridays ago, I witnessed a Florida Highway Patrol officer interacting with a homeless man near the ramp to get on and off I-95 in Boynton Beach.
As the officer drove away, I pulled over into a nearby parking lot, sought out the homeless man, and asked him to share his story.
"I'm a little disgusted," he said. "Every time I try to do anything, I get kicked in my ass."
Franklin Harper says he's a veteran who has been living homeless in South Florida since January. He was given a citation for $64.50 for standing near an interstate ramp, his fourth such citation in two months. "I'm 53 years old and half-crippled," he said. "It's just getting too hard out here, as far as making money."
Harper held a sign that read, "Homeless, out of luck, thank you," as he violated state statute 316.130(18), which prohibits pedestrians at interstate ramps. The officer acted in response to a call, according to the citation.
"For us, it's a safety issue," said Sgt. Mark Wysocky, a public affairs officer with the Florida Highway Patrol. "It has nothing to do with whether someone is homeless."
Officers often give warnings to pedestrians on interstate ramps before giving citations, Wysocky said.
City police and county sheriffs hand out 90 percent of the citations for bicycle and pedestrian infractions in Florida, totaling more than 7,000 in 2012. The cost of the citation is decided by each city, and the money stays where the citation is given.
Cities use ordinances like antisitting and antipanhandling laws to discourage the homeless from congregating in public areas in a strategy the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty calls the "criminalization of homelessness."
Howard Finkelstein is Broward's public defender and a critic of policies that target the down and out. "This isn't so much about keeping the ramps safe," he says after learning of Harper's case, "as it is about keeping the homeless out of sight."
According to Finkelstein, the most likely scenario for Harper if he doesn't pay his citation is that the state suspends his driver's license. "In some jurisdictions, if he doesn't pay, a lot of times they will issue a warrant for arrest for contempt," he says. "Now we bring him to a county jail at a cost of between $50 and $100 a day.
"It's mean-spirited and shows the stupidity in how we deal with the homeless," Finkelstein says. "This citation will do nothing to help anyone. It won't help this guy, it won't help the city, and it won't help the homeless or any business."
Palm Beach County recently opened a homeless resource center where law enforcement officers are encouraged to direct those on the streets, but Finkelstein says families, children, and women have priority for the limited number of beds and services.
Officials in Palm Beach say they remain committed to the county's ten-year plan to end homelessness. At last count, there were 35 homeless individuals and families in Boynton Beach and more than 2,500 in Palm Beach County.
Harper resumed holding his cardboard sign shortly after receiving his citation, this time away from the interstate.
"I've got no choice," he said. "I have to eat somehow."
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