(SS) A rat infestation at a downtown Fort Lauderdale park prompted the city on Friday to clear out, in dramatic fashion, the dozens of homeless people who congregate there.
A bulldozer shoveled heaps of debris and unclaimed belongings into a dumpster. Recycling bins were stuffed with personal items for the homeless to reclaim later. What could be salvaged — tents, sleeping bags, suitcases, knapsacks and duffel bags — were piled in a corner. Temporary fencing was erected around Stranahan Park, which will be closed for at least 30 days.
For the short term, city workers handed out bus passes and seven-day vouchers for 23 hotel rooms.
But still, many wondered what to do and where to go.
“This is a shock to see them come and tear this whole park apart,” said Michael Rayburn, 62, who has called the park at the corner of Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue home for the past seven months. “I feel pretty lost.”
Trinidad DeLeon, 38, pointed at nearby bushes and said he’d made his bed there for the past several months. He was taking a nap, DeLeon said, when he was awakened by city workers sweeping the park.
“I felt like they took our dignity away,” he said, grasping a tote bag. “This was the only place we feel safe. Now we have just what we can carry. I managed to save a pair of socks and some hospital scrubs.”
City Manager Lee Feldman said Friday the city was notified earlier in the week by the state Department of Health that the park was a health hazard. The goal in closing the park for at least 30 days, he said, was to restore healthy and safe conditions.
Mayor Jack Seiler said that while attending a meeting at the park a week ago, he saw a live rodent and a dead one for himself.
“We have a health, safety and welfare issue,” he said. “We need to address it in a very quick and decisive manner. We are going to focus right now on making sure that is a safe park, that is a healthy park and that is a clean park.”
The city for years has wrestled with how to rid the prominent park of homeless people. Downtown business owners complain it chases away customers and is a stain on the city's image. City workers landscaped the park with inhospitable, prickly plants. Elected officials passed an ordinance making it illegal to store personal belongings outdoors.
The city's legal dance with its homeless also has been a public relations nightmare. Fort Lauderdale garnered international headlines in 2014 when police repeatedly cited a 90-year-old homeless advocate for breaking city ordinances designed to stop his feedings of the homeless at a Fort Lauderdale Beach Park. The city is still fighting three lawsuits filed by those who feed the homeless outdoors and is working to settle the suits.
At a City Commission workshop held at the Women's Club in Stranahan Park last week, elected officials agreed they wanted the camp cleared out but couldn't decide how to go about it.
And at a city county meeting earlier this month, Fort Lauderdale asked that the old Stockade jail be opened as an assessment center for homeless people, but county officials rejected the idea.
Seiler said the city is willing to help its homeless but doesn't want them camping outdoors in the middle of a redeveloping downtown.
Making the problem more nettlesome is the fact that about 300 homeless don't want help or shelter, county Mayor Barbara Sharief said at the recent meeting.
The county's approach to homelessness is to provide free housing to those willing to accept it.
Seiler balked at that, saying it would "recruit" more homeless people to balmy Fort Lauderdale.
Homeless advocate Jeff Weinberger wondered how a bus pass and a week in a motel would assuage anything.
“And after that they’re still homeless and on the street again. How does that help anybody?” he said. “This is once again the city of Fort Lauderdale not thinking anything through and just reacting.”
Andrew Jimenez, 30, a lawyer, was on his way to the city library when he saw Friday’s commotion in the park — and he did not like what he saw.
“It’s a crisis, the homeless situation and the city’s failure to do anything effective about it,” he said. “Bringing a bulldozer to clear out the evidence isn’t going to solve the root problem; a clean up day isn’t going to solve it.”
Lorraine Wilby, CEO of TaskForce Fore Ending Homelessness Inc., criticized Friday’s approach and the failure to advise people that this was coming.
“It’s too fast, it’s too old fashioned, it’s like a giant bum sweep,” she said.
Homeless people seeking to reclaim their belongings can do so, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Fort Lauderdale Police station. If immediate access is needed, call 954-828-8000.