Criminalizing homelessness is an unfortunate trend in cities across the country. Many municipalities have enacted measures in the past few years that turn homeless people into criminals simply for trying to survive.
A city in Florida already notorious for its treatment of the homeless is going a step further. Last week, the Ft. Lauderdale City Commission unanimously approved two separate measures that restrict basic survival necessities for many homeless people, including sleeping in public areas and asking others for money.
The first, Ordinance No. C-14-41, makes it illegal for anyone to sleep in public in the downtown area. According to commissioners, it was necessary because of Ft. Lauderdale’s interest in the “preservation of property values and the prevention of the deterioration in its downtown.”
The second measure, Ordinance No. C-14-38, cracks down on people who ask drivers for money at an intersection. Under the new law, panhandling is now illegal at “busy intersections,” which includes dozens of stops in the city. The measure won’t just apply to homeless people, but anyone trying to raise money for charity, including children. Commissioners justified the move by pointing to the fact that there were 154 pedestrians involved in traffic accidents last year. But notably absent from that statistic is how many of those accidents involved panhandlers.
According to the Sun Sentinel, violators of the new laws could face both a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
Both measures passed by 5-0 votes, despite overwhelming testimony in opposition to the proposals. One local pastor, Craig Watts, cautioned commissioners against “laws that criminalize misfortune.” He called it “ethically dubious at best,” noting that the religious community opposed these measures.
Another individual who testified, Casey Cooper, told commissioners about his experiences being homeless over the past two-and-a-half years, noting that he “didn’t grow up in a wealthy middle class family like you did,” but instead grew up in foster care. He was never adopted, so when he turned 18, with no family, he found himself on the streets. “So if people like you who are banning me every night, I have to worry about where I’m going to sleep at, where’s the next meal at, how am I going to get the next piece of clothing, worry if the cops are going to mess with me, and you’re going to try to pass a law that’s […] going to ban homelessness?” Cooper asked commissioners. “Sleep is a human right.”
Cooper isn’t the only homeless person to call Ft. Lauderdale home. According to the 2013 Point-in-Time Count, there are 2,810 homeless individuals and families who live in Broward County.
Maria Foscarinis, who heads the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which monitors homeless criminalization laws, called Ft. Lauderdale’s move “unfortunate.” She told ThinkProgress that instead of criminalizing homeless individuals, “City revitalization should address the needs of all city residents — including homeless people — and should ensure the development of affordable housing, with any needed services, to provide a real and lasting solution to homelessness.”
This isn’t the first time that commissioners in Ft. Lauderdale have worked to criminalize homelessness in the city, nor is it even the first time this year. In April, the city passed a measure making it illegal for homeless people to have possessions in public and empowered police officers to confiscate them, provided they gave the individual 24 hours notice.
Criminalizing homelessness is an unfortunate trend in cities across the country. Many municipalities, ranging from Palo Alto to Miami to Raleigh to Tampa and beyond, have enacted measures in the past few years that turn homeless people into criminals simply for trying to survive.