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Activists Accuse Cities of Criminalizing the Homeless

The latest skit, called “Flower and the Kingdom of Fort Lauderjail,” by the Autonomous Playhouse, an activist puppet collective, lampoons Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler over city policies targeting the homeless.

The video, posted on YouTube, features a traveling thespian named Flower who is arrested with other homeless puppets and sent to a dungeon for aggressive panhandling in Stranahan park, a real-life public park in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale. In the end, Flower and his friends defeat the mayor.

“We shall no longer be harassed and arrested for eating, sleeping and bathing,” said Flower in the climax. “We have a voice and we’re using it.”


Cities including Fort Lauderdale have battled advocates over the rights of homeless people in public spaces (Photo courtesy of Jeff Weinberger)

Activist Nathan Pim, 27, founded the puppet collective and says he is frustrated with the status quo. “Every city in Florida is really dependent on tourism dollars and city officials are under a lot of pressure to keep up that revenue,” he said in a phone interview. “They all seem to think they can do that by getting rid of homeless people.”

The latest example is the city of Clearwater, which last year instituted fines of up to $500 and imprisonment of up to 60 days for sitting or lying down in public sidewalks in its designated tourist zone.

“Clearwater has invested millions of dollars into its downtown area and its beach,” Mayor George Cretekos said. “We were doing what we felt was right to protect our investment.”

The City Council was being proactive, Cretekos said, as homeless people in tourist areas were not a problem before the ordinance and are not a problem now. “We didn’t even arrest five people last week,” he said. “Those that we did stop for being problems, it was for open alcohol containers and doing drugs.”

The city has also increased investment in homeless services, he said.

Local governments across the country use city ordinances, like anti-panhandling and anti-sitting laws, to protect businesses and public areas from vagrants and to discourage illegal activity, but activists say these ordinances are discriminatory towards the homeless and outlaw life-sustaining activities.

Laws like the ones in Clearwater, and similar laws passed in Denver last year, contribute to what lawyers at the National Law Center of Homelessness & Poverty call the criminalization of homelessness. Of the 234 cities the Law Center surveyed in 2011 for “Criminalizing Crisis,” a report on the subject, 40 percent prohibited sleeping in public places and 53 percent prohibited begging in public places.

In California, a homeless persons’ bill of rights was introduced into the State Assembly in December by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, with the aid of the Law Center and Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.

“I can’t understand why sitting on a sidewalk is illegal,” Boden said. “We need to defend the right to exist for people that do not have a home.”

The proposed bill would guarantee homeless people freedom from discrimination and protect their right to use public space and engage in panhandling.

Critics, including the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Times and the San Fransisco Chronicle, say the law, if passed, would transform the homeless into a protected class and encourage unhealthy behavior.

“Cities are criminalizing behavior and not criminalizing homelessness,” said James Brooks, a program director at the National League of Cities. “They are seeking to stop aggressive panhandling, public urination, and seeking to enforce laws that already exist against assault or battery.”

Brooks said cities want to direct the homeless to expanded, centralized services in public and private shelters.

Maryam Louise MirRiahi said she was unable to use such shelters in San Francisco due to her service dog. A former schoolteacher in Louisville, Ky., she said she moved to San Francisco in 2010 in search of clinical help for her health problems — she suffers from chronic headaches and low vision. MirRiahi said she squatted in the area for several months before she was able to rent out space in a warehouse with no electricity, sleeping in a tent.

Though transportation for the disabled was advertised as a service in the city, MirRiahi said she did not succeed in using it despite nine months of trying. Identification requirements and lack of transportation prevented her from gaining access to housing.

“I finally got frustrated trying to get medical services and not being able to,” she said. “I was basically living there homeless spinning my wheels.”

Brooks acknowledges that homeless people have unmet needs, but city officials must balance those needs with the rights of citizens to safety and sanitary conditions in public spaces, he said.

In Fort Lauderdale, the city and county provide a 200-bed homeless resource center, one of over a dozen shelters in the area. But local police also make regular sweeps of public parks, including Stranahan park, where last year the Fort Lauderdale Woman’s Club and the city spent $237,000 to transform the spot from a meeting place for the area’s homeless to a botanical garden.

Nathan Pim faced the villain of his puppet fairy tale, Mayor Seiler, in the flesh, after a recent city commission meeting. Pim worked the video camera while fellow activists questioned Seiler on the issue of homelessness. “We do what we can,” Seiller explained.

Pim was encouraged by the politician engaging the activists in discussion. “It seemed like a real conversation,” he later said.

Just 30 miles south in Miami, homeless people cannot be punished for sleeping in public, as was decided by federal judge in 1992 in the case of Pottinger vs. Miami. Pim and his comrades in the puppet collective cite the case as a possible model for legal action against Fort Lauderdale.

In their fairy tale, Pottinger gives the heroes a magic wand.

“It is still possible for people to use it as precedent to protect their rights elsewhere in Florida,” Pim said.

March 4, 2013