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Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Defends City's New Homeless Laws


This year Fort Lauderdale commissioners passed a series of laws that have homeless advocates livid.

For example, it's now illegal to sleep in public places in the city's downtown. It's also illegal to beg for money at major intersections within the city. Most recently, a new set of rules were approved that make it harder for non-profits and churches to feed the homeless.

Supporters of these laws say it's about public health and safety. Homeless advocates call these "homeless hate laws."

In a recent WLRN interview, Commissioner Dean Trantalis of District 2 addressed the challenges of helping the homeless, especially those he says don't want help.

Trantalis said he spoke with the intake judge who handles people who have violated the city's ordinances. He said the judge has a process for offering shelter and food, and a liaison to work with them, but "invariably these people just refure to accept those places."

Here's an edited version of that conversation:

When you consider the fines of hundreds of dollars and jail time, possibly, is there any concern that we might be filling up the jailhouse?

That hasn't happened yet. And we don't know what the impact of these laws is going to be. I do know that the people that live in this community, and the people who visit this community, do have the right to experience the benefits of Fort Lauderdale, the amenities that we offer. [They] should not be denied access to those benefits because some people choose to be homeless.

Where homeless people go is the challenge. We've initiated a new program where we're prepared to pay a homeless person their bus fare, for example, to bring them back to their families. We have to take this on a case-by-case basis. There's no general panacea for how to help those other homeless people who have yet to secure the services of our community.

There are people who are worried that you're going to end up pushing homeless out of downtown and into other communities.

It's an interesting hypothesis, because there are other communities that have been pushing their homeless into our community. Here's how it's done -- if a homeless person is arrested in another city and they're brought to the courthouse and they bond out at the Broward County jail, where do they go? They have no means of transportation so they end up on the streets of Fort Lauderdale.

Are the cities working together on this or are all of you on your own?

We're doing our best to work with other cities. It's not the perfect science that we have yet to establish. I'm hoping that we can do better than we have so far. My heart goes out to those who are seeking help, who want to take personal responsibility, who just need a helping hand, we're there for them.

Are you worried the city may be seen as mean toward the homeless?

I think that once the full story is out and people see the entire spectrum of services and initiatives in which the city is currently engaged, I think people will have a better understanding of our role in trying to help the homeless in our community.

Author's note: Trantalis also said the city uses federal and state grants to help those who are battling with addiction or other economic setbacks. He said Fort Lauderdale is working with the Salvation Army, HOPE South Florida and the Homeless Assistance Center.

There was talk of groups possibly filing lawsuits against the city over these laws.

In the process of formulating these ordinances, our city staff has worked closely with those connected with the homeless community in an effort to ensure that the rights of all individuals were addressed and the goals of keeping a safe and welcoming environment were maintained.

We would hope that any disagreements could be worked out in an amicable way. Unfortunately, there are those who are more interested in making news than making peace. I even reached out to one of the more vocal members of the homeless community, to sit down and talk things through. Unfortunately, that person stood me up, and offered no excuse for ignoring the very appointment which we had set.

The 100,000 Homes for Housing First Campaign is working with agencies in Fort Lauderdale. How effective has it been?

It's been an enormous help in assisting the city to provide for the most chronic homeless persons. We are doing our best to work with the dollars we were given. They are part of an overall strategy of engagement that attempts to work with each homeless individual to help work them through their personal crisis.

Find any ordinance in Fort Lauderdale.

Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.