Fort Lauderdale's Plan to 'Criminalize' Homeless Under Fire

Tuesday, 22 Apr 2014 12:11 PM

By Drew MacKenzie

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Fort Lauderdale’s plan to take back the streets from the homeless has church leaders and human rights advocates up in arms.

The commissioners in the Florida city have given preliminary approval to a measure that would allow police to confiscate personal possessions left on public property, according to the Sun-Sentinel.

The proposal states that if indigent people leave items on the sidewalks, parks, or beaches for more than 24 hours, they will be removed in the "interest of aesthetics."

The homeless could face fines to retrieve their stuff, which could be thrown out if not claimed within 30 days.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said, "This is about criminal behavior and criminal activity. We have to maintain our downtown, our community, our beach for the benefit of all."

But the measure has been called a homeless hate law by activists, who note that the people without roofs over their heads have nowhere to keep their few possessions.

"We're in a sense trying to criminalize people for things that are beyond their control," said the Rev. Gail Tapscott of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Lauderdale.

The mayor, however, said that homelessness in the city has become such a major problem that it needed financial assistance from county, state, and federal sources to solve the crisis.

The city commissioners also agreed that homeless people who urinate or defecate on public property should be fined up to $500 or jailed for up to 60 days.

The measures were introduced after business leaders complained that the unsightly homeless were driving away customers and making visitors to the city uncomfortable.

"We're losing customers, and we're losing staff, as well, because it's getting out of control," said restaurateur Tim Petrillo, a board member on the Downtown Development Authority.

But Jeff Weinberger, of the Broward Homeless Campaign, said that the homeless "don't have a choice but to keep their stuff outside."

He added, "How does this help? How does this not exemplify cruelty? People need their stuff. Homeless people have little enough."

Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, also attacked the proposals.

"Maintaining city streets is a legitimate concern, but simply punishing homeless people for leaving their possessions in public places is not an effective or humane way to address it," she told ThinkProgress.

"Instead, city and business leaders should work with advocates and homeless people to develop alternative short- and long-term solutions, such as public storage options for homeless people and affordable housing."

Fort Lauderdale is not the first city to "criminalize" homeless people, ThinkProgress claimed, citing such towns as Miami and Tampa in Florida; Raleigh, N.C.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Palo Alto, Calif., among dozens of others.

But the report noted that some cities like Davis in California have built storage lockers so the homeless can safely store their possessions.

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