FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The only warning for those living in the park was the loud rumbling of the heavy machinery as it came to remove them from their makeshift homes.
Soon more than 50 homeless men and women were forced out of the park, with their belongings seized.
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"They came in like a thief in the night," said homeless veteran Trinidad DeLeon. "We’re distraught. We’re confused."
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler held an impromptu press conference in which he told the public the city was forced to oust the homeless because the health department had issued a citation for rats in the park. But what Seiler didn’t mention was that it was the city itself which had complained about the rats just days after Seiler himself said at a barely publicized city workshop meeting that his goal was to remove the “negative visual impact of the homeless” from downtown.
"I have no doubt that this was a cooked-up inside job," said homeless advocate Jeff Weinberger.
Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis said he believed his own city had acted dishonestly.
"This was a sham by the city and we should be ashamed of ourselves," said Trantalis. "It was totally inhumane and it didn’t make any sense to me."
Trantalis said no one finds the camp ideal, but that such a dramatic action, which displaced dozens of people with their belongings seized by the city without notice, should have been publicly discussed and voted on by the commission.
"We’re dealing with human beings, human lives, human conditions," he said. "You don’t just take a bulldozer and push them out."
And Trantalis says he believes it was Seiler himself who orchestrated the raid, along with city manager Lee Feldman.
"I believe [Feldman] worked with the mayor and the mayor instructed him to do that," said Trantalis. "The city doesn't work that way. The mayor is not a strong mayor. The city is run by a majority vote of the commission."
Just nine day before the raid, Seiler spoke his mind about the homeless at the commission workshop meeting, which was held at the Fort Lauderdale Women’s Club in the park.
"My problem with the homeless is what we're seeing right here out this window," said Seiler. "The negative visual impact of so many homeless in downtown. … I would consider it a huge success if we can move the homeless out of this highly visual location that impacts our businesses and our commerce."
Trantalis can be heard asking the mayor a simple question: "Where do they go?"
"Are you going to tell me that every person that shows up in Fort Lauderdale we’ve now adopted and we have to figure out where they’re going to sleep for the night?" said Seiler. "Where they go is where they go."
"There is no way to argue with a point of view like that," said Trantalis. "You've got to understand that you're not just pulling weeds out of the ground you're dealing with human lives."
Seiler admits that it was at that meeting that he and other city officials first noticed rodent on the grounds.
"I observed rats the day I was at the women’s club," he said. "I observed a live rat and a dead rat."
The following Monday, the city's homeless services director, Jeri Pryor, filed a complaint about the rats with the health department, leading to an inspection, the citation, and then the city’s decision to conduct the sudden raid.
When questioned about his statements regarding homeless people, Seiler insisted he never complained of the negative visual impact of homeless themselves, though the actual audio clearly contradicts that assertion.
"The park was a visual eyesore," said Seiler. "I don't consider any person a visual eyesore."
Seiler insisted he didn't direct the Feldman, the city manager, to either initiate the complaint or direct the city to clear the park, though he said he approved it greatly. And the mayor said Trantalis should have spoken to Feldman to learn what the city was doing, saying he and other commissioners check with the city manager daily for information.
"If Dean doesn't choose to communicate with the city manager about an issue that is Dean's decision," said Seiler.
When Local 10 investigative reporter Bob Norman remarked that it sounded like a “shadow government” that was being run through Feldman without public debate, Seiler said, “If there is a life safety welfare issue you don't wait for a publicly noticed meeting."
Over and over again the mayor cited the health issue for the homeless as the reason for the rush.
"Don't you agree it was a little inhumane not to give them any notice that they were about to be displaced?" asked Norman.
"When you're dealing with life, health, safety, welfare … you need to take action," said Seiler.
The ACLU is investigating the city’s action and is considering legal action, in part on the grounds that the city violated its own ordinance giving citizens 24 hours notice before their belongings are seized on public property. Seiler again said the health emergency posed by the rats superseded that law.
"Shame on us for thinking we have to sneak around procedure and the commission to accomplish something," said Trantalis.
As homeless people return to the area even with the park closed, Trantalis said the raid did no discernable good in any way.
"We’ve done nothing to really cure the problem," he said. "All we’ve done is put a band aid on it and ripped it off."
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