Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: The 21st century catches Fort Lauderdale unawares

HOMELESS ADVOCATE: A police citation handed to Arnold Abbott, 90, for violating a new law banning feeding the homeless in Stranahan Park in Fort Lauderdale aroused controversy.
HOMELESS ADVOCATE: A police citation handed to Arnold Abbott, 90, for violating a new law banning feeding the homeless in Stranahan Park in Fort Lauderdale aroused controversy. MCT

It was as if the age of social media had crept up upon the hierarchy at Fort Lauderdale City Hall and caught the old fools napping. Suddenly a community that spends millions each year on hospitality marketing found itself doused in international infamy.

Ham-handed would be too kind to describe last month’s rollout of an ordinance regulating homeless feedings that passed in the early hours of Oct. 22.

Maybe the mayor and city manager and the commission majority were too blurry-eyed to anticipate a public relations disaster of their own doing. But Mayor Jack Seiler, soon-to-be infamous as a homeless-hating fiend, may as well have raised his gavel and pounded himself in the head.

Commissioner Dean Trantalis talked to me Wednesday about the city’s regrettable failure to craft the ordinance with public meetings and greater public input, particularly from the feeding groups likely to raise a ruckus. Instead, the city created adversaries out of the likes of Food Not Bombs and the 90-year-old chef-to-the-homeless, Arnold Abbott. It was a PR battle the city was bound to lose.

While the city leaders acted dumbfounded, Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and a giant avalanche of social media instantly defined the controversy as a war on homelessness. Worse, the city officials cast themselves as jack-booted thugs in the inevitable street theater. With TV camera crews and iPhones capturing the scene, uniformed cops showed up at Stranahan Park to cite sweet, saintly old Arnold Abbott. Gracious. As the political consultants say, the optics were just horrible.

Too late, Mayor Seiler tried to counter the internationally accepted narrative that the city had banned homeless feedings and maybe the homeless. And was bent on tossing old Arnold Abbott into prison.

By then, Seiler’s explanations, however true, only sounded feeble.

The city had a decent, reasonable, defensible argument about the need to redirect outdoor feedings away from parks and the beaches, toward indoor venues like churches. Outdoor feedings would require some minimal sanitation accommodations, like portable toilets.

Scores of other cities have managed to pass outdoor feeding regulations without causing an international uproar. In 2011, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a similar Orlando city ordinance was a “reasonable” restriction that served the city’s “substantial interest in managing park property and spreading the burden of large group feedings throughout a greater area.”

In the past, Fort Lauderdale’s civic leaders have been much more reprehensible without nearly so much adverse reaction. In the late 1980s, the city commission, in its zeal to vanquish those mighty hordes of college spring breakers, allowed cops to employ mean, heavy-handed tactics that would have lit up YouTube, had it existed.

Former city commissioner and mayor (1986 to 1991) Bob Cox delighted in making all sorts of cringe-worthy, outrageous statements including a suggestion (never actually pursued) about pouring noxious chemicals into garbage bins to discourage transients from “dumpster diving” for discarded food. “The way you get roaches and vermin out of there is to take away their food supply,” then-Commissioner Cox said in 1981. “How do we get rid of the garbage cans — the food supply? Spray kerosene in the cans?” Ironically, the 33-year-old remarks by Cox, who died last year, have been revived and channeled through social media as further evidence of the city’s modern-day homeless-persecuting inhumanity.

Captain Scott Russell of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, assigned to homeless outreach, talked of his days as a Fort Lauderdale policeman assigned to what cops dubbed the daily “bum sweep,” rousting transients from the beach area in the early morning hours before the tourists awoke. “We know now that you can’t arrest your way out of the problem,” he said.

Captain Russell presided over Wednesday’s meeting of the Broward Continuum of Care Board, a panel assembled to advise the Broward County Commission on homeless problems. The board voted unanimously to recommend that the county sponsor a referendum for a penny tax on restaurant sales similar to Miami-Dade’s to finance housing and social services that might get folks off the street. Broward already budgets about $10.3 million for homeless programs.

The quandary, of course, is that about 30 percent of the county’s homeless — about 2,800 — resist offers of social services and structured settings and insist on wandering the streets and living rough. Most of those dubbed chronically homeless suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues, often both. In a state that is dead last in the nation in spending on mental health, the city of Fort Lauderdale, its civic leaders — if they had been more nimble — might have noted that they’re dealing with a problem created by state negligence without much help from Tallahassee.

Commissioner Trantalis told that board Wednesday that the city’s problem was further exacerbated by northern towns that solve their homeless problems by buying transients bus tickets to Fort Lauderdale. After the meeting, he told me that this was a real and chronic problem. “This is human trafficking.”

But none of that will do much to help the city’s lousy PR. Not now. Not with the narrative already defined by ten thousand tweets.

Maybe Broward Circuit Judge Thomas Lynch gave Fort Lauderdale a way out on Tuesday when he ordered the city to stop enforcing the new homeless feeding ordinance for 30 days while the city attorney and Arnold Abbott try to work out a settlement.

If nothing else, the court-ordered mediation gives city officials 30 days to catch up with Twitter, Facebook and the 21st century.

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