‘We need to come up with a plan:’ Fort Lauderdale bracing for state’s new homeless camp law

A new state law that bans overnight sleeping in public places has Fort Lauderdale leaders nervous — particularly since the law paves the way for critics to sue cities that fail to enforce the ban.

Fort Lauderdale Vice Mayor Steve Glassman says he wants to come up with a plan before the ban takes effect in October.

“I never want to see us get to the point of a Los Angeles. Or a San Francisco. Or a San Diego,” Glassman said. “We have got to come up with a plan.”

A key component of the law gives local governments the option to set up homeless camps that can remain in place for up to one year. The camps will be required to have security, running water and working bathrooms.

Under the law, counties can designate an area in a specific city for the camp, but will need approval from that city’s governing body.

County commissioners have made it clear they do not support the idea of setting up a homeless camp in Broward.

“I know the county has already expressed their opinions about the law,” Glassman said during a recent meeting. “But the law is the law. I just don’t want to find ourselves caught at the last minute with no plan.”

City Attorney Tom Ansbro warned the commission that people can start filing lawsuits on Jan. 1, 2025.

“I have a call in to the county attorney to begin a discussion,” Ansbro said. “Six months will go very quickly. And we’ve got to work on a plan together to address this issue.”

Maybe it’s time to revisit the idea of using the county’s old stockade on Powerline Road to house the homeless, Mayor Dean Trantalis said.

The idea came under discussion in 2017, but was nixed by the county.

Some complained that the facility had a barbed wire fence. Others said the stockade would be needed in case of overcrowding at the county jail.

“Now we have a situation where we continue to look for opportunities to house homeless people and the state is saying we are going to force you to,” Trantalis said. “So what’s going to happen is we are going to have to arrest people. If we put them in jail, we start to (over) populate the jail. And guess where they’re go to go: The stockade.”

Homeless people gather across the street from the bus station on Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale on February 28, 2024. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
People gather across the street from the bus station on Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale on February 28, 2024. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Broward County has a homeless population of an estimated 8,263 people. Nearly half of them live in Fort Lauderdale, according to a recent count.

“You can walk down the street to the bus station and see two or three dozen homeless people that are there every single day,” Trantalis said. “And that’s county property. And the county does very little to address the situation. We have to have a real serious conversation about this.”

The new state law may bring challenges, but it will end up getting local governments to work together on a solution to the homeless crisis, Commissioner John Herbst said.

“I think this legislation is going to force us to address it,” Herbst said. “And I think in that respect, it’s probably a good thing.”

Herbst said he’d like to see the county and city hold a joint workshop to figure out next steps.

“We need the county at the table to have this conversation,” he said. “This is a regional problem that cries out for a regional solution.”

Charlie King, a longtime resident and fierce critic of the city’s homeless crisis, told commissioners he hopes the new law helps fix the problem once and for all.

“This law is for us more than anybody,” King said. “This is an opportunity to change the dynamic. When you drive around the city, you see nude people rummaging through garbage cans, people running through traffic. We see the craziest stuff. I would say we probably qualify as the Portland of South Florida.”

King urged the city to start pressuring the county to make changes.

“We need to do drastic things,” King said.

The bus benches lined up along Federal Highway have turned into homeless havens, he told the commission.

“People aren’t sitting on them,” King said. “They’re living on them. We have to just do something.”

Chris Nelson, a fellow resident who told commissioners he was once homeless, said he holds out hope that the new law will end up changing things for the better.

“We can’t have people just laying all over the place anywhere they want,” Nelson said. “It’s not fun arresting people. But there needs to be a message sent that this isn’t the place for all the people in Florida to come if they want to sleep in the park somewhere.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com. Follow me on X @Susannah_Bryan

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