Fort Lauderdale Continues Harassing Homeless Despite Lawsuit for Bulldozing Camp

Under Mayor Jack Seiler, Fort Lauderdale has been harassing homeless people for years. In 2014, the city made it illegal to feed the homeless and arrested a 90-year-old Good Samaritan, Arnold Abbott, for giving needy people food. After that debacle grew into a national embarrassment, a judge invalidated that law, but the city apparently didn't stop looking for ways to drive the homeless out of Stranahan Park in the center of town. Most recently, the city reported itself to code enforcement to justify confiscating property in the park and then taking a bulldozer to the homeless encampment.

That stunt sparked a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is ongoing. In the meantime, Fort Lauderdale has continued bothering Stranahan Park's homeless residents, lawsuit be damned.

This past Wednesday, denizens in the park reported that the city had placed warning tags on their belongings, alerting them that their personal items would be seized within 24 hours. That action wasn't enforced, but now notices have been posted around the park that a "cleanup" is scheduled to take place sometime Monday, and activists say the actions are obvious attempts to continue harassing the Stranahan Park dwellers.

"This is part of a continuum of cruelty on behalf of the city," activist Jeff Weinberger tells New Times. "Two days ago, they tagged belongings of a bunch of people and were threatening more property confiscations. Could have happened beginning yesterday around 5:30, but it never materialized. One news crew came out from Local 10 for naught."

Via email, Seiler declined to comment on the ACLU suit, since the case is still open. But, he said the city would "absolutely continue to enforce all laws, ordinances, codes, rules, regulations, etc. in our City parks, including Stranahan Park."

Weinberger and other Broward County activists say the city's bag-confiscation operation earlier this week wouldn't have been legal had it been enforced, because the city is allowed to remove items "stored outside" only if they're left more than 20 feet from their owners. Weinberger says many of the homeless residents in Stranahan Park were within that 20-foot zone but received warning letters anyway.

Weinberger's advocacy group, the October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, wrote online that the warnings were "an act of terror perpetrated by the city of Fort Lauderdale against the most at-risk population in our community and in cities across the nation, namely persons experiencing homelessness."

The city never ended up confiscating anything, possibly due to the alarm local activists sounded about the coming roundup. But now cleanup notices have been placed around Stranahan Park in anticipation of power-washing and tree-trimming. These operations happen regularly across the city, but Weinberger and other activists say the regular cleanups also serve a second purpose: forcing the park's homeless residents to constantly move in and out of the area in hopes they don't return.

The city has long feuded with Stranahan Park's homeless. The City of Fort Lauderdale provides housing for some homeless citizens but claims those living in Stranahan Park have regularly refused help.

The notices warning of Monday's cleanup say that any personal property left on the grounds will be confiscated once the operation begins. From there, belongings will be held no longer than 30 days before being destroyed.
Weinberger says the city's homeless are upset because they don't know what time the park cleanup will begin.

"What time is it going to commence?" Weinberger asks. "If it's one minute after midnight, that has a much different impact on homeless people than if it begins at 8 a.m. They do these area-wide cleanups periodically. One could make a pretty clear case that the area could probably use a cleanup, but this is going to seriously inconvenience homeless people."

Moreover, local activists say they're stunned the enforcement actions and cleanup operations haven't seemed to slow since the ACLU sued the city for taking a bulldozer to Stranahan Park. In May, the city claimed a "rat infestation" had forced city officials to shut down the park for a mandatory cleanup. That "cleanup" included using a bulldozer to shove piles of allegedly "unclaimed" items into dumpsters; homeless residents later told the Sun Sentinel that people lost IDs, laptops, birth certificates, social security cards, and other valuable items in the so-called cleanup, which was not advertised to residents ahead of time.

In fact, the decision to clear the camp was made in a city "meeting" that was held at the park's Women's Club, not the city commission chambers, and was not advertised to the public on the city website.

City officials claimed the Florida Department of Health was forcing them to clear the park. But two weeks after the bulldozing, the Sun Sentinel revealed that the alleged DOH "complaint" actually came from the city itself.

One commissioner, Dean Trantalis, has called the city's actions a "disgrace" and said the city intentionally called the Health Department on itself to circumvent its own laws, which require the city to post warnings before clearing a homeless camp like the one in Stranahan Park.

In June, the ACLU announced it was representing 16 homeless residents who lost personal items in the raid. The city has not yet responded to the claims in the suit, but it has apparently not stopped warning the park's residents that their items can be taken at any time.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.