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Homeless in a time of COVID-19; what Broward may do to begin providing protection

Homeless camped Sunday on a swale across the street from the Salvation Army shelter at 1445 W. Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Photo: Dan Christensen

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

Stay home and put distance between yourself and other people. That’s the government’s advice to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.

But what do you do when you don’t have a home?

With infections and deaths from the COVID-19 virus still surging, the urgency of finding ways to protect those who live on the streets is acute. In Broward, the idea of getting homeless men and women off the streets and into empty motels and hotels is beginning to gain traction.

Miami-Dade began renting hotel rooms for some homeless earlier this month, the Miami Herald has reported. On Tuesday, Commissioner Michael Udine will propose doing something similar in Broward.

“I’m making the assumption that with vacancies so huge in some of these places that maybe we can find a way,” Udine said in an interview over the weekend. “I support figuring out a way to do it in an economically feasible fashion that provides the homeless and the people they come in contact with protection.”

Broward Commissioner Michael Udine

Fort Lauderdale’s Dean Trantalis and Ben Sorensen, respectively mayor and commissioner of the Broward city with the largest and most intractable homeless population, did not respond to Florida Bulldog requests for comment. Also not responding: Rebecca McGuire, human services manager for Broward’s Homeless Initiative Partnership.

Chronic homeless

An estimated 2,800 chronic homeless live on Broward’s streets. Hundreds of other individuals reside in publicly run homeless assistance centers (HACs) in Pompano Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood as well as in shelters operated by the Salvation Army and other charities.

“People living unsheltered on the street, and therefore anyone who may come into contact with them, are still being put at great risk,” said Jeff Weinberger, a local advocate for the homeless. “These people have no place to use a bathroom. The only place they can go is in the alleys or the bushes or in the central bus terminal when it’s open and it’s closed at night… If your goal is to spread the coronavirus and maybe also hepatitis, let people keep shitting everywhere they want.”

Scott Pring, 53, of Lincoln, Nebraska and John Simpson, 79, a two-time Army vet from Atlanta who served in Vietnam and Iraq have been living in tents behind a Salvation Army shelter since March. They said police no longer hassle them, as they did weeks ago when city commissioners were considering a camping ban, but government has been of no help.

Scott Pring, left, and John Simpson, have lived in tents behind a Salvation Army shelter since early March.

“There aren’t any toilets. No showers,” said Pring. “There’s nobody sick either.” He and Simpson said they’ll walk a half-mile to the downtown bus station and wait in line to get into the restroom. They’ll take another long walk to Sunrise Boulevard to use HOPE South Florida’s mobile shower unit when its open on Tuesdays Thursdays and Saturday.

Weinberger has been prodding the county and the city for weeks to do something to protect the county’s homeless population from COVID-19’s onslaught. “We’re calling for motel rooms for at least the most at-risk people on the street,” he said. “There’s also a need for a sanctioned encampment where they can get the amenities they need to survive, like toilet and shower facilities.”

To date, he’s seen no help.

Police surveillance unit parked next to the homeless camp behind the Salvation Army shelter.

“I’m beyond disgusted, not only that the county and City of Fort Lauderdale have provided nothing to protect the health and safety of homeless persons, but that each, in their own way, has engaged in moving forward either laws or policies or practices that have made life on the street even worse than it was before the onset of the pandemic. When this is over if not before, heads should roll,” Weinberger said.

Showers and toilets

But some limited help does appear at last to be on the way.

Commissioner Nan Rich said that the homeless initiative had acquired 2,000 face masks for distribution. And at Tuesday’s meeting, Broward commissioners will consider spending $550,000 to purchase mobile sanitation equipment to be placed at various locations. The equipment will include two showering stations, each with two shower stalls, and “fully functional restroom stations with three toilets per rig and another showering station with six shower stalls.’’

Two nonprofits, TaskForce Fore Ending Homelessness and HOPE South Florida, would partner with the county on the project, which was established to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 “by increasing the availability of sanitation equipment for individuals who are experiencing street homelessness, defined as individuals living on the street and/or in places not meant for human habitation.”

HOPE South Florida operates this mobile showering station for the homeless in Fort Lauderdale.

Funds would come from “a non-departmental appropriation for COVID-19 expenses,” and TaskForce “will organize the delivery of mobile sanitation equipment in coordination with multiple municipalities and monitor all mobile sanitation stations for cleanliness, capacity and usage.” Besides Fort Lauderdale and Pompano, potential locations have been identified in Davie and Hollywood.

In county officialese, though, it looks as though the public stink was nearly as big a motivator as the virus for county action.

“As a result of public restrooms closures in parks and libraries, as well as private businesses and alternatives such as fast-food restaurants, the county’s Homeless Initiative Partnership (HIP) section has experienced an increase in phone calls from constituents pertaining to human feces and bodily fluids in and around public and private buildings, bridges and bus stops,” says the county administration’s explanation for the funding request.

Roofs for homeless

As for finding roofs to put over the heads of the needy during the current epidemic, help seems farther away. Many shelters report waiting lists for beds. The county’s HACs are full and have less capacity than normal due to recent social distancing measures, said Rich, who chairs the county’s Homeless Continuum of Care Advisory Board.

“We had to stop intake for a short period because of that, but one positive thing: to date there continues to be no COVID-19 cases in the shelters due to the wonderful work of the staffs,” said Rich.

“While the county continues to report no known cases of COVID-19 at any of the four main shelters, I and others I know are incredulous about that claim,” said Weinberger. “If people aren’t being tested, then obviously they won’t test positive.”

Homeless advocate Jeff Weinberger

Those four homeless shelters are the Central HAC at 920 NW 7th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale, the North HAC at 1700 Blount Road in Pompano Beach, the Broward Outreach Center at 2056 Scott St., Hollywood; and the Salvation Army shelter, 1445 W. Broward Blvd.

Rich said Broward’s homeless partnership is working with landlords in the county to find available beds. She said Fort Lauderdale officials, notably Commissioner Sorensen, have “been talking to hotels and motels so we can house them there.” She added that Broward Convention Center boss Stacy Ritter told the commission she’s been in touch with hotels that would consider taking in the homeless.

“It’s the outreach that’s needed,” Rich said.

Homeless advocates split

Not all homeless advocates are enthused about the idea. “I believe it would be a challenge to manage given the current climate and CDC [Centers for Disease Control] protocols and shelter-in-place directive,” said the Rev. Ted Greer Jr., CEO of HOPE South Florida. “I would not like the idea of having to move our homeless friends out of the hotels and back to the streets after we have defeated COVID-19.

Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry

“Alternatively, I would rather see the county, city and the private sector make a significant investment into the current system of care to increase the local capacity over the next 3-6 months.”

County Administrator Bertha Henry said Saturday she wasn’t aware of any initiatives to rent hotel rooms for the homeless, or of any interest in the idea by hotel owners suffering from a dearth of empty rooms during the economic shutdown.

“Bertha Henry hasn’t been approached, but I can’t say that a member of my team hasn’t been approached,” she said. “But I’m gonna find out when I hang up.”

Henry added that she believes federal stimulus money will be forthcoming that could be used to pay for those rooms. “We put in our certification for it and we got confirmation. Now we’re waiting.”

So, too, do Broward’s homeless as the horrible reality of life on the streets today plays out.

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Latest comments

  • No comments, no solutions
    I think it’s a shame
    And would assist in anyway possible
    Is there someone I should contact
    954-732-9817

  • Thank you for running the story- I am sewing masks for the Salvation Army- I sell them to offset the costs of fabric- but I am making more masks that people are wanting to purchase. I am still sewing them as long as they are needed. I reached out to the commissioner that as the Chairwoman of the Broward Quilt Expo I have an army of sewers to reach out to. That was one month ago and never heard back. So all our quilters who can make masks are making them for their donation of choice- When I did read in the newspaper that the Salvation Army had a need I called the director, as we are in the Junior League Together, and I said I can sew for you. But I am only one person, but every mask helps

  • I think the ccounty of Broward and Dade should make sure a human being has a roof over their heads during and after thos pandemic.

  • I wholeheartedly object to my tax dollars going to put up the homeless population in vacant hotel rooms and I’d imagine most proprietors would object as well. Mobile bathrooms? Maybe. However, this population has been using our parks, bus shelters and other public spaces as a toilet and receptacle for their garage and drug paraphernalia for years. Sure, we the people could pay to provide two thousand some odd nice air conditioned hotel rooms so these folks have a place to pee, poop, shower and sleep at night… but come sun up, many will be right back on the street, abusing free transit rides during a pandemic to travel to areas for panhandling, then buying contraband and alcohol… and we are going to provide a cushy place for them to return to drink and use? Will there be Showtime and HBO? I think not. How about we relegate this to the organizations that enable them in the first place… Churches would be a good place to start.

  • Elizabeth,

    I am shocked about your comment. I hope you will never be in a situation where you have no where to go. Lots of these people are victims of the system. You have no compassion! Churches would be a great place for YOU to start to learn to be compassionate!

  • I sent an email to Mayor Trantalis and the Fort Lauderdale Commissioners a few days back after I saw a rather large contingent of homeless folks tightly embroiled in a nasty argument at the downtown library….. looked like a serious public health issue…. glad to hear Sorenson might be working on it …

  • Corina, thank you for your comment. Elizabeth is obviously living a cushy, privileged life. That “us versus them” mentality IS the problem, and extremely problematic. How condescending and paternalistic towards our city’s most vulnerable. Let’s hope she never finds herself or her loved ones in a similar situation.

  • Its been some months since article. Numbers of covid are rising. Whats happening to the homeless? What can we do to help?

    Library fight, a library is a place homeless can go. Internet acess. Clean restrooms. Charge thier devices. Homeless are human beings, need some where safe to go….. Now libraries closed – where are they supose to go?????

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