When a coterie of about 15 homeless folk gathered two weeks ago on a balmy Monday evening under the copious canopy of a banyan tree in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the mood, if not quite funereal, was understandably somber.
For six years, "the Tree" — located at the site of the long-abandoned city hall and fire station, on NW First Avenue, just north of the Broward Central Bus Terminal — has been well-known among homeless people as a place where they could meet with social workers who would direct them to services like shelters and drug-treatment centers. But on June 1, the Tree was declared off-limits by officials from Broward County, which sets homeless policy, and the City of Fort Lauderdale, on whose property the towering banyan is located. The city plans to sell the land, and the outreach that took place under the Tree will be replaced by a new county-mandated model that will employ mobile units to locate and provide for those in need.
In a community still sporting a big black eye from having repeatedly cited 90-year-old Arnold Abbott last November for sharing food in violation of Fort Lauderdale’s new food-sharing ordinance, the city’s homeless residents are fed up as always. Homeless residents interviewed last week told New Times that the move to shut down the Tree caught them off-guard; they learned of its shutdown only from a Sun Sentinel article ten days before its closure. The new plan, they say, is poorly thought-out, not yet fully funded, and was devised by self-described homelessness "experts" who rarely solicit input from actual homeless individuals. At a meeting today, they intend to demand that services be reinstated at the Tree.
According to Michael Wright, who directs the county’s Homeless Initiative Partnership, the policy shift to mobile outreach units was included in Broward’s 2005 ten-year plan to end homelessness and was approved by the County Commission back in August, 2013. Yet when asked about the decision to shut down the Tree with little warning on June 1, he dodged responsibility. While he acknowledged that the timing of the implementation largely fell on him, he refused to state who made the ultimate decision to shut down the Tree three weeks ago. Rather, he intriguingly said that because it doesn’t sit on county property, it couldn’t have been the county’s call to shut it down. Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman, however, kicked the question back to the county, saying via email, “I believe you should direct your inquiries on the administration of that program to Broward County.”
In a May 22 Sun Sentinel story, Wright had made the new, mobile outreach system sound simple: "If someone calls 211 and says, 'We are at the Tri-Rail station; we are six people,' then outreach can go meet them."
But most homeless persons don’t have cell phones, while those who have them would be hard-pressed to use their limited minutes waiting on hold for information from a 211 operator.
Pastor Frank Pontillo of Remar USA, who hosts a weekly Sunday-night food sharing at the Fifth Avenue Temple Church of God, says, “It’s not like it’s a group of tourists calling from the Tri-Rail to make a hotel reservation. For homeless people, it’s not that simple."
Without the Tree, referrals are being offered at Poinciana Park in Hollywood and another site in Pompano Beach, though both sites are slated to be shut down and replaced by the mobile unit system come October 1.
Says Pontillo: “Sending them to a fixed site in another city, when we had a fixed site right downtown, doesn’t make sense.” He sees a clear agenda by the city to rid the downtown area of homeless folk.
He says a homeless woman he met at Stranahan Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale was unable to obtain shelter on Saturday, June 13, due to the inability of the new mobile unit system to pick her up and transport her to the Hollywood referral location. The woman was distressed, having been advised that she would have to navigate a transit system she had never used before to a place she had never been.
“She’d never been out of the city on her own; she was crying, and she was distraught. They told her to go to the dog park in Hallandale, but she didn’t even know where Hallandale is,” Pontillo said. The woman told him at his food sharing the following day that she had slept outside of the Salvation Army facility on West Broward Boulevard on Saturday night, where she was sexually harassed by male passersby.
The TaskForce Outreach Team for years has been the agency providing the one-on-one referrals at the Tree and has been designated to continue that work under the new mobile-unit system. Its CEO, Lorraine Wilby, agrees that the shutdown of the Tree was at best premature.
Wilby acknowledged that the new system, as currently configured, is not set up to enable the transportation of clients from far-flung parts of the county to the two fixed referral locations at Poinciana Park and Pompano Beach. She also expressed concern that the new system would have a negative impact on her organization’s ability to assist as many homeless people as possible.
“We’re not going to be able to touch as many people as we normally do,” Wilby said by phone. Elsewhere, the homeless services provider had acknowledged that the new plan could result in as much as a 65 percent drop from the 4,700 unique clients her staff sees in an average year.
In the Sun Sentinel article, Wright also stated that additional funding for the mobile unit system, an increase from the current $125,000 to $305,000, wouldn’t become available until October.
Pontillo, who also sits with Wright and other community leaders on the county’s Continuum of Care Board, the primary homelessness advisory body to the County Commission, has requested that a discussion by board members on the feasibility of the Tree’s reopening be added to the board’s June 24 agenda. The meeting, which is open to the public, will begin at 10 a.m. at 115 S. Andrews Ave. in Fort Lauderdale.
Homeless people interviewed by New Times were highly critical of a shelter system that seems to function more like an assemblage of human warehouses than a path out of homelessness.
“The point is, they should have a place for us to live,” said Charles Hyman, who at various times had gotten referrals to Broward Outreach Centers (BOC) in Pompano and Hollywood, the Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) on the outskirts of downtown, and the Salvation Army. Hyman noted that currently he lives on the street.
Matthew Black, a cancer patient diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma while also currently living on the street, had a more troubling story. Noting that his most recent of many short-term referrals over the years was to a BOC, Black stated that about eight months ago he’d been referred to the HAC, a longer-term shelter facility established in the late ’90s to serve as a conduit to permanent housing and a wide range of services.
According to Black, when a manager there learned of his condition, “I was told I would be a liability” and that he’d either have to give up treatment whereby he could remain at the HAC, move to another facility that would have drained his paltry disability income, or hit the street. To continue receiving the chemotherapy treatment that Black says may be his only hope to stay alive, Black chose the street, he says.
Michael Long, the HAC’s spokesman, citing HIPPA laws that prevented him from discussing Black’s case, insisted, “That’s not our protocol, never has been, never will be. We would not have ever dismissed someone like that.” Long noted that cancer patients have resided at the HAC over the years.
To the homeless community and its advocates, the shutting down of the Tree merely falls in line with the decades-long assault on homeless persons’ dignity and their relegation to second-class status in a city that last year passed five ordinances criminalizing their existence in a six-month span. The notorious culmination of last year’s fiasco was the multiple citing of then-90-year-old Arnold Abbott for violating an ordinance restricting food sharing.
Abbott and four other plaintiffs have in turn sued the City of Fort Lauderdale to maintain their right to share food publicly. Enforcement of the ordinance has been on hold since early December and will be until the city introduces amendments later this summer that officials hope will be amenable to the food sharers, according to a source in the Fort Lauderdale City Attorney’s Office.
Although video of Abbott’s arrests went viral and condemnation issued forth from around the globe, local officials, eying tax dollars from major downtown development projects that are streamrolling forward, have continually downplayed the criticism. And whether it was the county alone that mandated the shutdown of the Tree or whether the decision was made in consultation with Fort Lauderdale city officials, the latter couldn’t have asked for a nicer gift than the closure of a referral spot directly adjacent to their burgeoning cash cow.
The crowd gathered in the candlelit twilight on the night of June 8 had come to say farewell to a spot where they’d felt safety and love, even if it was temporary. From under the protective shade of the towering banyan, safe from the sweltering midafternoon Florida sun, so many had lined up week after week, hoping for a referral to one of the county’s too-few shelter beds, information on where to grab a free meal or a shower, a bus pass to get around town, or, if they were so inclined and could qualify for the program, a Greyhound ticket out.
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Not everyone in attendance, however, was quite down with the epitaphial tone infusing the occasion.
“We shouldn’t look at this as an ending but as a beginning,” Ray Cox urged the mournful group.
The 61-year-old Cox, a homeless Fort Lauderdale resident for the past four years, is better-known for resurrecting a spirit of rebellion at City Commission meetings, more than one of which he’s dominated with the flair of a court jester, than for resurrecting official governmental policies.
At the Continuum of Care Board meeting on June 24, Cox, along with homeless advocates and homeless folk from throughout the area, plans on demanding the resurrection of the Tree until the county can implement a referral system that works for all who depend on it.