By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org
An activist says a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner used bullying tactics to force homeless people to abandon their tent community on public property.
After spending months at a camp behind a Salvation Army shelter off Broward Boulevard, some returned to the streets, where COVID-19 roams freely.
Jeff Weinberger filed a complaint Sept. 22 with the Broward County Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that accuses Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Robert McKinzie of ramming a pickup truck into a tent at the camp.
The complaint says McKinzie told Luke McCloud, the homeless man who owned the tent, “This is my property,” apparently referring to the campsite.
McCloud recently told Florida Bulldog that high-ranking police officers who appeared with McKinzie warned McCloud if he didn’t move, he’d be arrested. He and Weinberger said beat cops constantly harassed camp residents.
Homeless camp erased
The camp sprang up in January on a public right-of-way behind the Salvation Army shelter on Broward Boulevard in northwest Fort Lauderdale’s Dorsey Riverbend neighborhood. After pandemic rules forced the shelter to stop accepting new clients, more than two dozen people set up tents outside.
McKinzie, a well-connected building contractor, represents Dorsey Riverbend on the city commission. He did not respond to emailed questions from Florida Bulldog.
The camp was emptied and turned into a city construction site soon after the alleged mid-April incident involving McKinzie. Florida Bulldog published a story about the camp on April 20. The swale where the homeless once camped has been paved over and 17 unused parking spaces dot the property.
“It’s a street that nobody goes down. People drive past the parking spaces to get to the Salvation Army parking lot,” Weinberger said.
City paperwork about the project doesn’t say who requested it, why it was needed or how much it would cost city taxpayers. The “applicant” is listed as a city traffic administrative supervisor.
Weinberger is trying to obtain city internal documents to learn more. His OIG complaint says there was no camp left to close by May 5, when the city commission voted on and rejected an ordinance that would have closed it. The camp was also near the Jack & Jill Children’s Center at 1315 W. Broward Blvd.
Trantalis: Bullying isn’t city policy
McKinzie disparages homeless people, Weinberger said, but other city leaders are better at expressing empathy than doing very much to help them.
“The city pays a lot of lip service to helping the homeless, but in reality they don’t do anything. They criminalize homeless people,” he said.
Mayor Dean Trantalis told Florida Bulldog he was unaware of the OIG complaint. “If the allegations are true, it’s unfortunate that he chose that tactic,” Trantalis said of McKinzie, his political foe.
“I apologize on behalf of the city that a commissioner has conducted himself this way toward people who are destitute and seeking help. This is not the policy of the Fort Lauderdale City Commission and whatever he did was totally on his own,” Trantalis said.
He disputed Weinberger’s claim that the city’s homeless policy is more talk than action. “I think it’s disingenuous to say our efforts were a failure,” Trantalis said.
He confirmed that the city used $530,000 in federal funding to help the homeless and said the commission just approved spending hundreds of thousands more from the same source.
Contempt for homeless camp
Asked about direct city funding, Trantalis referred a reporter to City Manager Chris Lagerbloom, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Trantalis said getting people off the streets and into shelters or hotels, where they met with social service case managers, resulted in some of them finding jobs and achieving independence. “It wasn’t 100 percent, not everybody accepted our offer,” he said. Trantalis said Lagerbloom would know how many successfully completed the program.
In contrast, McKinzie expressed his contempt for the people who lived in the Salvation Army tent camp at a May 5 city commission hearing.
“This is the only group of people that gets to flat out ignore the constitution, that gets to flat out ignore the laws that all of us have to abide by,” he said. “I was born and raised in this community. I don’t want to see this in anybody’s backyard.”
He wanted to extend a 2014 ordinance banning homeless camps downtown to anywhere in the city that’s within 1,000 feet of a child care facility or a school. Violations carry a $500 fine or up to 60 days in jail.
Proposal fails in 3-2 vote
In the end the commission voted 3-2 against McKinzie’s proposal. Trantalis cast the tie-breaking vote.
He said at the time he felt “conflicted” because he knows that having a homeless camp near young children is a problem. “But this ordinance is not the answer. It would antagonize the community rather than address the concern.”
McKinzie reacted to the commission’s decision by saying it was “embarrassing, appalling to me. It’s just turning a deaf ear and closing your eyes to the obvious, which is what needs to be done right now. Stop using COVID-19 as an excuse why not to act.”
The lengthy virtual hearing that drew Dorsey Riverbend residents along with health care and homeless advocates was contentious at times. It showed how homelessness impacts and roils an entire community, especially during a public health crisis.
The homeless form a roving community of their own. They are estimated at 2,400 in Broward County, with 40 percent, or almost 1,000, in Fort Lauderdale. Weinberger said he believes “the count is off by at least a factor of two to three.”
It’s also hard to estimate how many camps remain in Fort Lauderdale. Weinberger reeled off three locations, but explained, “A lot of homeless people try to stay hidden out of fear of being abused by cops or mean humans.”
‘Why my neighborhood?’
At the May 5 hearing, backers of the McKinzie proposal claimed they saw people at the homeless camp at the Salvation Army camp openly bathing, defecating and having sex. They called in to say such outrageous acts would never be tolerated in the wealthy enclave of Victoria Park, and complained that homeless drifters went from downtown to Dorsey Riverbend.
“I say to you, why my neighborhood?” asked a woman who described herself as a concerned citizen. Much of Dorsey Riverbend is African-American.
“If we are going to take this fight on, it needs to be proportioned throughout the city. Dorsey Riverbend is not the place to fix the problem,” said Pamela Beasley-Pittman, president of the Historic Dorsey-Riverbend Civic Association.
“No one is willing to take a person home with them and help them get on their feet,” said Pittman. That approach “would eliminate the homeless problem in this community.”
In the meantime, she favored McKinzie’s idea.
An opponent likened his proposal to housing laws that greatly restrict where registered sex offenders may live. She said the expanded homeless camp ban would be equally restrictive and punitive.
‘Treat people like humans’
Several opponents noted that federal COVID-19 guidelines warn against destroying homeless camps. Not only are the inhabitants highly susceptible to COVID-19 because of untreated health problems, they can spread the disease to others when they’re forced out into the community.
“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” an Aug. 6 guideline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states. “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the guideline says.
“Treat people like humans,” Dr. Armen Henderson of the University of Miami urged the commission.
“This is America, this is the richest country in the world, so called. So it really sucks that we have to have people living on the street and a lot of people that I’ve come across don’t want to be there,” he said.
Leaving Fort Lauderdale
Two homeless people who recently left Fort Lauderdale told Florida Bulldog they came to rely on supporters and their own wits when city officials’ promised long-term help failed to materialize.
McCloud, who said he tangled with McKinzie at the camp, is living in the backyard of a Miami-Dade homeless advocate, along with four others.
Eventually McCloud, who is mentally disabled,got a hotel voucher from the city and was one of a group of about 70 who spent four months at the local Rodeway Inn. He said he worked with a case manager to apply for Section 8 low-income housing, but it never came through.
McCloud’s eviction notice arrived with an offer to move into a shelter, but he declined to go there, believing shelters are breeding grounds for COVID-19.
“Why would you jeopardize my life going to a shelter when you promised us something?” he asked. “They could have left us where we were instead of building a place for cars to park at.”
One of McCloud’s backyard neighbors is Shana Cartwright. She had a moment in the spotlight when she called into the May 5 city commission hearing.
Homeless woman’s temporary fix
Cartwright said she was calling from the plaza outside the closed, downtown main library, surrounded by 30 other homeless people. “All we need to do is have somebody come out here and help us out,” she said.
Trantalis asked why she and the others congregated at the library.
“Cause we don’t have nowhere else to go,” Cartwright responded.
“Well, guess what Shana, you’re in luck,” the mayor said. He promised hotel accommodations in a while, “so try to be patient.”
The reaction from Cartwright and the crowd at the library was loud and joyful. “Yes! Thank God!” rang out. There were cheers and applause.
In a recent interview, Cartwright said she followed the same path as McCloud — stayed at the Rodeway Inn, unsuccessfully applied for housing, got an eviction notice and an invitation to move to a shelter. She went to the shelter but left after one day.
Will complaint make a difference?
“They wouldn’t let us go to the store,” she said. “They kept me like a prisoner and I’m not in jail.”
“All this could not have happened if the mayor did what he was supposed to do, give us housing,” Cartwright said.
Weinberger’s organization is the October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, named for the date in 2014 when the Fort Lauderdale commission approved ordinances that penalize panhandling, food sharing and more.
The inspector general’s office doesn’t discuss ongoing investigations and Weinberger said he didn’t know what happened to his complaint. The OIG isn’t a prosecutor; its recommendations are only advisory.
Still, Weinberger hopes his complaint resonates.
“If enough noise is made about how the city acted, we can use this as leverage to force them to do the right thing and make demands that they provide housing for these people,” he said. “We can shame them into doing the right thing.”