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Housing The Homeless

a collection of tents housing the homeless in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Florida
The homeless encampment near the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Tamanoeconomico.

“Home for the holidays” is a complicated sentiment for those without a place to call home. But city officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida hope to place all residents of a major homeless encampment somewhere more permanent by New Year’s Day.

“Our goal is to see that every resident of the current downtown Fort Lauderdale encampment is home for the holidays,” Broward Mayor Beam Furr said at a news conference.

The encampment in question is just a few blocks from both my home and Palisades Hudson’s headquarters. For years, activities such as voting at the public library (my former polling place) or going to our nearby bank branch have entailed navigating through or past this encampment and its inhabitants. Most of the people who live there are peaceful and harmless, but some clearly suffer from the effects of mental illness and substance abuse. The homeless are often targets for crime. Some of them also wander into the middle of busy streets like Andrews Avenue and Broward Boulevard, either to panhandle or because they are simply disoriented.

At best the encampment is an unsanitary mess. At worst it’s downright dangerous to residents and passersby alike.

So, like most everyone else in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I have wanted the homeless encampment gone for a long time. But wishing the homeless away wasn’t going to get the job done. Past efforts to break up the camp were as ineffective as they were often inhumane. City officials have rightly faced criticism for missteps such as citing a preacher for offering food to homeless people or unceremoniously dumping camp residents’ belongings into the trash while trying to clear the area.

Local officials are trying a kinder and gentler approach this time, with support from local business leaders and charities like the United Way. I don’t know if it will work, but I have to applaud them for at least trying.

Homelessness has multiple causes, and the new long-term plan is meant to offer various kinds of support. Brittany Wallman, a reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, spoke to several camp residents. Some said that they were employed, but had not been able to save enough money to handle the fees and deposits necessary to secure an apartment. Others were struggling with the cost of health care. The city plans to offer a combination of temporary housing, job assistance and addiction treatment in an effort to find permanent solutions for the people who have camped in front of the Broward County Main Library, sometimes for years. The plan is meant to offer daytime services to other homeless Fort Lauderdale residents as well, not only the encampment’s residents.

It is hard to know how far-reaching or long-lasting the results of this plan will be. A couple of miles west of this encampment, there is an exit ramp off Interstate Highway 95 onto Broward Boulevard that almost always has a panhandler at the top of the ramp, where cars usually have a lengthy wait for a traffic light. The presence is so consistent and so orderly – there is almost never more than one person panhandling, and rarely has there been nobody at all – that I have wondered whether they post a schedule of shifts someplace. Will the downtown effort reach these people too? I hope so.

Mandy Wells, deputy director of Broward County’s human services department, told the Sun Sentinel that the county will not get into the business of providing housing for homeless individuals from other regions or states who try to take advantage of the new services in Fort Lauderdale. But this raises logistical questions. What are they planning to do – ask someone for proof of residence who has no residence? What will stop other communities from addressing their own homelessness issues by providing people living on their streets with a bus ticket to Fort Lauderdale? (The city’s main bus terminal is just across the street and down the block from the encampment.)

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Wells said. “This is a process, not an event.”

There are almost certainly pitfalls ahead, and no guarantee of this effort’s long-term success. Even its short-term success is not a sure thing. But naysaying isn’t going to help anyone. Kudos to our local leaders for trying to do better than we have done in the past, and to do some real good in the process.

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