About five years ago, an encampment of homeless people took root in Fort Lauderdale on the grounds of the county library downtown, just a couple blocks from the riverfront and stylish Las Olas Boulevard.
In time, 80 people lived there in tents. Some had generators and barbecue grills, but there were no toilets or showers. The smell was, I’m told, horrendous. There were rats. Constant noise. Fear. Most residents jammed their tents together for whatever security that the proximity afforded. Violence was common, particularly against women. The homeless panhandled workers at downtown businesses and visitors to the library. At night, drug dealers slipped into the area.
About a block away from the encampment is the headquarters of AutoNation, one of the crown jewels of the city’s business community. Mike Jackson, AutoNation’s CEO at the time, did not like what he saw when he looked out from his building — or what it said about his community. And his employees didn’t like being harassed on their way to lunch or to their cars.
Jackson decided that the state of affairs was unacceptable. He created a $300,000 challenge grant to end homelessness in Broward, starting with the encampment. Whether out of shame, a sense of responsibility — or fear that AutoNation might take its corporate presence elsewhere — Fort Lauderdale rallied. The Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, the county's main economic business development group, got together with the local United Way to create the Broward Business Council on Homelessnes. It hired Lynne Wines, former CEO of First Southern Bank and now a member of BankUnited’s board of directors, to run it.
“We just decided we needed to do something about this,” Wines says. The business community “raised money and provided resources, said here’s a budget and created a team. It just took on a life of its own.”
Collaboration grew — among business leaders, law enforcement, county and city government leaders and the alphabet soup of groups that operates under the Broward County Continuum of Care Board, the group that plans, funds and coordinates the agencies that serve the homeless.
During six months of planning, the council hired someone to find landlords with affordable apartments. It made arrangements to pay for security deposits and first month’s rents. Agency caseworkers worked with the homeless to determine what services they needed — from substance abuse counseling to health care to the basic identification that many lack. An outreach team worked with the homeless to overcome skepticism that they would actually get homes.
In November, right after Thanksgiving, the tent community was disbanded, and the area was cleaned. Of the 80 homeless, 70 were relocated, first to motels, then to apartments. Three were able to re-establish connections with family. Seven refused all services. “Every single person went voluntarily,” Wines says. “There were no arrests.” The council worked with the ACLU, which monitored the process.
Wines says the biggest surprises for her involved the demographics of the homeless. Almost all, she says, had lived in homes or apartments within five miles of the downtown encampment before becoming homeless — they weren’t a bunch of deadbeats from other places who came down for the weather. Many, she says, worked in service jobs, sometimes two or three, but simply couldn’t accumulate enough money to get into an apartment. Several were elderly: One man, 79, had worked as a house painter and owned a home until medical bills from two heart attacks ended up costing him his savings and his house. A 66-year-old woman had worked as an attendant in a health facility; she lost her legs to diabetes, spent two years in a rehab facility and then was released — to the streets — in a wheelchair. Another woman came to Florida to care for her elderly father; there was enough money to keep him in an assisted living facility but not enough to support herself in an apartment as well. “Everybody has a different story,” Wines says.
Aside from the removal of the encampment downtown, one of the most encouraging developments from Broward’s homeless initiative is a “community court,” the only such institution in the Southeast U.S. Funded for the moment by a grant, the court enables homeless people who would normally get arrested for misdemeanors like public intoxication or public urination to appear before a judge, perform community service and get linked to services they need to get off the street. “Having them go in and out of jails,” says Wines, “does no good.”
Around 900 people in Broward still live on the streets without shelter; some, like the seven in the encampment, choose that life. The rest are prisoners of economics and their personal afflictions. Wines says what Broward’s initiative needs now to help those willing to be helped is more affordable apartments and funding to sustain work that’s being paid for by philanthropy and grants.
Meanwhile, the effort is a good example of how business and government have roles to play in taking on difficult social problems. It’s a lot of work. But it all starts with an acknowledgement that having a large number of people living on the streets is simply unacceptable. Says Wines: “It’s really terrible that we allow this to go on.”