Fort Lauderdale shifts gears to clear large homeless camp downtown

Officials offering housing, job assistance, drug treatment

By Tim Swift - Local10.com Digital Editor, Layron Livingston - Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Fort Lauderdale city officials started clearing out a large encampment of homeless people Monday near the Broward County Library. But unlike previous unsuccessful attempts to shut down the camp, officials said they were working with nonprofit groups to slowly and humanely move the temporary residents to more stable homes.

About 80 people are currently camped outside the library in the heart of the downtown business district in the 100 block of South Andrews Avenue. Business owners and local residents have long complained that the large camp -- with large amounts of trash and makeshift tents -- is a blight on the area.

In the past, the city has cleared the camp, quickly disposing of the debris, tents and personal belongings, only to have the homeless people gradually return. Other clearings have led to legal challenges from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The homeless people there say they can't afford the high cost of rent in South Florida.

Local charity groups have also clashed with the city after providing food, showers and other services to homeless people.

Now the city is changing its approach, offering the homeless people temporary housing, job assistance and, for some, treatment for drug and alcohol addictions.

"For too long, the encampment between the library and Stranahan Park has stood as a symbol of our community’s inability to adequately address the issue of homelessness," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said. "The people there live in miserable conditions."

Companies, including Bank of America, BB&T Bank and AutoNation, have contributed to the effort, which the city says is a less costly alternative than doing nothing.

"It is less expensive than the current hidden costs of homelessness borne by our hospitals and jails," Trantalis said. "The program should help reduce emergency room visits, as well as the rate of incarceration."

Lynne Wines is the senior director of the Broward Business Council on Homelessness, which works to combine resources from the business community with the services from nonprofits and government organizations 

"If people get food and shelter and are housed safely, they can then start concentrating on improving their lives," Wines said.

On Monday, a few of the residents of the camp took advantage of the new programs and moved out, but others remain skeptical. 

"There's some people, right now, who don’t want to leave. They want to wait and see what happens. So we’re going to continue to engage them, talk to them and reassure them," said Rebecca McGuire, of the Homeless Initiative Partnership for Broward County.

A woman named Kim who has lived in the camp for six months with her husband and two dogs called the change bittersweet, saying the makeshift community is like a family. But she said she is ready for the move.

"I'll just be glad to get out and get into my own apartment again," Kim said.

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