Tonight, Fort Lauderdale city commissioners will vote on two ordinances: one which that would ban camping downtown, and another that would ban panhandling in many city locations.
This past spring, the city passed an ordinance that allows police to confiscate homeless people's belongings, and another that strengthened a law against defecating in public. Commissioners have also said they want to more strictly regulate groups that pass out food to the homeless, and it's expected that such a law might be introduced this fall.
The laws have come as a response to the business community, whose members have complained that the presence of homeless people drives away customers. But advocates for the homeless say these measures amount to "anti-homeless hate laws," which make it difficult for the homeless to perform basic living functions such as sleeping and eating. The criminalization of homelessness is a trend that's happening around the country. (Pensacola this year briefly made it illegal for homeless people to have blankets.)
Some advocates said they were trying to rally crowds to tonight's meeting, while others seemed resigned.
Nathan Pim, with Food Not Bombs, says that to a lot of homeless people downtown, the laws are "old news." It's already "pretty arbitrary whether they get in trouble or not." Police could cite offenders for trespassing if they wanted to make an arrest; the new anti-camping law will mostly affect the areas by the "parking lot around the bus terminal, or at the train tracks," Pim predicts.
The reason people congregate in those areas is for safety and access to social services, he says. But if those reasons "are trumped by the threat of arrest, then people will go where it's less safe or farther from the Salvation Army or farther from access to the social services that they need."
Homeless people sleep in public places, he notes, because "usually it's the best place for them not getting robbed and not getting the shit beat out of them." Fort Lauderdale has had its share of high-profile crimes against the homeless. Teenagers beat several homeless men with bats for fun in 2006, killing one, and last year, a young woman driving her mother's Porsche ran over and killed homeless men while they slept.
Frank Pontillo says he volunteers with a church that helps the homeless and says there are not enough beds in shelters for all of the city's homeless. "If you call 211 right now you will find there is a waiting list. This is especially true for mentally ill persons and women with children. If they outlaw feeding, people they will be sending desperate people into the streets and guess what? They will find tourists with purses to snatch or break in homes and cars. Desperate hungry people will do desperate things. The city needs to think through their plan."
Fort Lauderdale's new laws amount to "a war on the poor," says Micah Harris, who along with his wife Laura Florio, started the Peanut Butter & Jelly project about seven months ago after seeing a Vine video where people fed ten people for ten dollars. "It's not cost-effective, as well as inhumane."
The couple passed out sandwiches, chips, and bananas. The project bloomed unexpectedly. Friends insisted on making donations, so they set up a non-profit. They figured out when there are gaps in services and made meals on days that other church groups were not already out. They currently pass out 50 to 100 meals several days a week, Harris says, and also began supplying items like aspirin and toothbrushes. Since February, he says, they've helped 36 people get jobs or return to their families.
Still, Harris says he doesn't get too tangled up in politics and prefers to work within the system rather than "fighting the establishment that's larger and in control. You're not going to get anywhere poking the bear."
Harris says that because he's a bartender at Fat Cats, he's friendly with a lot of police officers and is not harassed. But since the law allowing police to confiscate belongings was passed in the spring, Harris says, he's gotten about 20 calls from people saying "They confiscated my stuff! I had a bag with clothes and toiletries! Now I have nothing.'" (Police are supposed to hold the items for 30 days.)
Harris says, "We'll get their sizes and get them a bag with clothes and shoes."
If commissioners pass anti-food-sharing laws, he says, then police should "go to every park where people are throwing food on a grill and sharing, and say 'You can't feed them.' That's no different than me me feeding a stranger."
Tonight's meeting takes place at Fort Lauderdale City Hall, 100 N. Andrews Ave., at 6 p.m.