In a move that some say is limiting the expression of compassion, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission passed an ordinance in October that places restrictions on feeding programs for the homeless outside of a building. This follows the addition of a law in April that gives police the authority to confiscate possessions stored in public after a 24-hour notice and the enactment of an encampment law that prevents people from sleeping with their belongings in certain areas.
When it comes to the homeless, Vice Mayor Romney Rogers said, “It’s a balancing act. It comes down to cooperation. There are mental health issues, pure shelter issues and funding issues. Our objective is public safety. We need laws to protect the innocent and at the same time allow for the daily occurrence of people in need.”
The social service ordinance mandates that food distribution centers provide an indoor dining area that meets all requirements for food-service establishments, provide bathroom facilities and be located more than 500 feet from residential areas.
“Public feeding outside is problematic in a number of ways,” said Romney. “People have to eat, but there needs to be controls otherwise it raises health issues.” He pointed to people who drive into Fort Lauderdale from some other city and hang food out the window. “Who is going to be there for the cleanup?” he asked. “It’s a balancing act.”
However, Frank Pontillo, a pastor for REMAR USA, dedicated to helping people with drugs, alcohol and homelessness based out of Fifth Avenue Church in Fort Lauderdale, claims the ordinances are criminalizing homelessness and the ministries that connect with them by imposing unreasonable hardships.
One man who spoke at the city commission meeting, suggested that the ordinance criminalizes compassion and requires good and decent people to disobey it.
A shelter is needed
“If they stop feeding in the streets it will push more people into the churches, which may be a good thing,” said Pontillo, but he claims the solution is to put money into a homeless shelter and allow churches to provide services there.
“All they really have now is a tent with cots and a port-a-potty,” said Pontillo. “You see 100 people in line in the hot sun to get a cot by 4 p.m., and they have to be out of there by 5 a.m.” Pontillo said the homeless are also hesitant to leave familiar areas and take the risk that they may not get a cot and be left in a vulnerable position.
He supports the concept of “housing first” a strategy being utilized in Utah where the homeless are placed in housing before they have conquered the drug, alcohol and mental health issues that led to their situation. The concept is that once people have housing they can focus on tackling these ills and get the help they need.
A comprehensive approach
Rogers asserts that “These social issues need to be addressed in a comprehensive manner that encourages partnerships.”
The city is currently using a $400,000 Rapid Rehousing Grant to provide apartments to those consider most at risk with plans to expand the program that are grant dependent.
One of the frustrations for city officials is that the county charter makes social services county business and as the county seat, Fort Lauderdale has the largest population of homeless. As the county seat located across the river from the jail, Fort Lauderdale must meet the needs of people who are arrested and have no means of transportation when they are release. “They have to walk their way out,” said Romney.
This problem has led to the city purchasing bus tickets as part of its reunification program. “If we can identify a family member who agrees to pick you up at the bus station and provide shelter for you, we’ll buy the bus ticket,” he said.
“We want to facilitate those who want and need help and create a network of opportunity. That includes referrals to social services,” said Romney. “We have police officers assigned specifically for that.”
Funding is needed
Perhaps the biggest problem is funding since the city doesn’t have a budget set apart for the homeless. “We supplement grants to some degree as law enforcement and fire rescue spend a lot of their time on these resources,” said Romney. “I wish there was a magic bullet, but there’s not.”
Pontillo said he believes God is calling the churches to be part of the solution. “We are called to reach out to the least of these,” he said. “Perhaps churches with financial resources in the suburbs could pitch in to collaborate with funds and resources.”