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How closing of West Palm Beach's Currie Park affected homeless, Old Northwood neighborhood

A locked gate marks the entrance to Currie Park at 23rd Street in the north end of West Palm Beach.
Matt Musgrave
Stet News
A locked gate marks the entrance to Currie Park at 23rd Street in the north end of West Palm Beach.

Five months after fencing was erected around Currie Park, West Palm Beach has no timetable for when a long-planned $33 million renovation will begin but acknowledged it is still months away.

Widely seen by north-end neighbors as a way to rid the nearly 14-acre waterfront park of hundreds of homeless people who have gathered there for decades, the fencing has largely accomplished that purpose.

But, nearby residents and homeless advocates say that goal, which city officials deny, has come at a high cost.

“The mayor put the fence in to keep the homeless out,” said Sandy Matkivich, who has fed people in the park for years and is a frequent critic of Mayor Keith James. “The Harvard graduate (doesn’t) care that it also keeps out tax paying residents that pay his salary.”

In addition to depriving residents of the playgrounds, soccer fields and walkways that ribbon the Intracoastal Waterway and pass the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the fences forced homeless people to find new places to live.

With limitations on their ability to use the park to wash, go to the bathroom or sleep, they instead flocked to the alleys behind homes in the nearby historic Old Northwood neighborhood.

Tom Strauser, who has lived on 27th Street since 2021, said homeless people for years have been fixtures in the upscale neighborhood of Spanish-style homes.

“Since Currie Park was fenced off it’s just exponentially gotten worse — going to the bathroom, doing drugs. You name it, we’ve seen it,” he said.

Tom Strauser outside his Old Northwood home.
Jane Musgrave
Stet News
Tom Strauser outside his Old Northwood home.

A neighbor, who declined to let his name be used for publication, said the first months after the fences went up were untenable.

“People are screaming at themselves or with their posse and leaving shit and piss all over the place along with mattresses and chairs,” he said. “It’s never-ending.”

While fights, trash and showering with lawn hoses have inexplicably abated somewhat in recent weeks, Strauser and other residents said the situation was foreseeable.

“It’s frustrating to me that there was no plan to address it,” Strauser said.

When city officials in June 2022 released the plan for what they described as an “historic transformation into a world-class waterfront park and visitor destination,” many residents questioned what would happen to the homeless.

“Going to displace a lot of homeless people who sleep down there,” one resident said in a post on the Facebook page Engage West Palm Beach. “Any plans for dealing with this issue? Likely to condense in the surrounding area.”

Another resident voiced similar concerns. “What is the city’s plan for the dozens of homeless that currently reside in Currie park after the renovation?” he asked on the Facebook page. “Will they continue to be allowed to live under the pavilions and set up tents in this new world class waterfront park? If not, where will they go?”

City brought in Lord’s Place

City Commissioner Cathleen Ward, who represents the area, said city officials anticipated the fencing would displace many homeless people.

“Please be assured that the city is taking this matter seriously and determined to find sustainable and compassionate approaches to help those in need,” she said in an email to Stet News. “Our aim is to address the challenges faced by the homeless population by assisting them with housing options including social services as well as ensuring the safety and cleanliness of city parks and public spaces."

Before the fencing went up, the city’s Homeless Outreach Team, police and other city workers joined forces with nonprofit agencies, such as The Lord’s Place, to move homeless people from Currie Park into shelters, she said.

Diana Stanley, chief executive of The Lord’s Place, said her agency’s efforts were hampered. After James took office in 2019, he canceled the agency’s contract to provide homeless services, electing to bring them in house.

Dealing with the homeless requires developing relationships, she said. Most don’t trust anyone, particularly strangers who arrive unexpectedly and urge them to uproot their lives.

Joey Nieves, director of homeless outreach for The Lord’s Place, said at the city’s request his team went to Currie Park before the fences went up to urge the homeless people to go into shelters.

“Three times we went out within a week’s period and were able to get two or three individuals out,” Nieves said. “If we maintained the contract, three could have gone to 30. Even getting three in was huge. We haven’t been in the area for 2½ or three years.”

While members of the city’s outreach team had relationships with some of the homeless people, they don’t operate a shelter. “The city knew them, but they didn’t have the resources,” Nieves said.

Growing homeless population

The county’s homeless population has skyrocketed in recent years. There were nearly 300 more homeless people in the county this year than in 2023, the Palm Beach County Department of Community Services reported in April in its annual point-in-time homeless count.

Of the 2,126 homeless people who were counted in January, only 546 were in shelters. Another 1,508 were living on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings or campsites.

The majority — 782 — live in the sprawling urban district represented by County Commissioner Mack Bernard that includes West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach, the agency reported.

Stanley said the increase is not surprising. Housing prices have exploded in recent years, forcing many people to abandon housing they could just barely afford and then became beyond their financial reach.

The census found just 27% of those surveyed were chronically homeless, meaning they have been without housing for a year or four times totaling 12 months over three years.

Still, Ward said, the city’s homeless outreach numbers are impressive. In the year ending in April, 466 people referred from the city's team were offered shelter beds, she said. About half of them took advantage of it. Most were living downtown and in the north end, she said.

Many still are.

Suddenly, they’re gone

A visit last week found about 15 homeless people gathered along the water’s edge, just outside the fences. That is a far cry from the 200 people neighbors say lived in the park. None wanted to talk about the impact the loss of park access has had on their lives.

Fenced off park awaits a $33 million renovation.
Matt Musgrave
Stet News
Fenced off park awaits a $33 million renovation.

Matkivich said in the last week the numbers gathered in the park have plummeted. She said homeless people told her that a fight broke out one recent Saturday night, police responded and cleared everyone from the area.

Ana, a retired doctor who walks her dog along Flagler Drive, said she was pleasantly surprised by the absence of homeless people — and garbage — while taking a daily stroll last week. Declining to give her last name, she said she suspected some type of official action had been taken.

Police spokesperson Mike Jachles said officers regularly visit the area. “But there’s been no single law enforcement initiative,” he said. “There’s just been a continuous effort to address the needs of the homeless. We can’t make them leave. We can only encourage them to seek shelter.”

But, even Ana, who celebrated the trash cleanup, said more efforts should be made to help the homeless.

“I feel sorry for them because they are human beings,” she said. “The city has to do something about this.”

Fencing alone won’t solve the problem, neighbors said.

Conceptual rendering of proposal to rebuild Currie Park in West Palm Beach’s north end.
City of West Palm Beach
Conceptual rendering of proposal to rebuild Currie Park in West Palm Beach’s north end.

Why did city erect fence so early?

City spokesperson Diane Papadakos said the fencing was put up in February to give city workers time to remove old playground equipment and shelters.

Residents were quick to point out that the fencing didn’t block access to the tennis courts and the boat launch, which draw from a broader population.

The city is more than two months away from awarding a contract for the improvements, which will include a playground, splash pad, pickleball courts, a 7,270-square-foot community center, a nearly 6,000-square-foot cafe and refurbished docks, Papadakos said.

The work is part of a long-delayed push to improve the area that is bordered by swaths of vacant land, much of it cleared before the Great Recession, bought by billionaire Jeff Greene and only now beginning to draw development plans.

The state, which is contributing $16.7 million toward the park improvements, has to sign off on the plans before the city can advertise for bids from contractors, Papadakos said. The selection, she said, would be a two-month process.

Then, she said, a groundbreaking will be scheduled.

But, residents and homeless advocates said, more could have been done to reduce the trauma on the homeless and surrounding neighborhoods.

“That’s what’s so sad,” Strauser said. “As a society, we have to do better.”

This story was originally published by Stet News Palm Beach, a WLRN News partner. 

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