A Firsthand Look at Homelessness in Fort Lauderdale

Let me get two things out of the way before I apply the paddles to resuscitate my neglected personal blog. First, I haven’t had much to say of a personal nature, as my recovery has, until this week, essentially put my life on hold. I didn’t see much interest in ongoing updates detailing my bed rest or progress in online snooker, although I am proud of the two century breaks I recently accomplished (wuhoo!). Second, now I do find myself back in the pool, unexpectedly and unceremoniously pushed into the deep end, I think it should be known I am not one who feels the world owes me a free ride. On the other hand, I do believe a society’s worth should be measured by the quality of life afforded its poorest, rather than the top one percent’s accumulated wealth.

Humans tend to separate themselves from lesser creatures, but the truth is, top of the food chain or not, we remain a part of this planet’s ecosystem. Indignant, self-righteous, and wholesale denials aside, we are animals, and as with any herd, our rate of progress is determined by our weakest members. In the wild, predators and prey alike care for their elderly and injured. Lions and antelope both slow their migratory pace to allow the infirm to keep up. Elephants and water buffalo gather in circles with the strongest on the outside, protecting their young, aged, and injured from attack. Occasionally, they have been known to mount rescue efforts to retrieve those taken down by predators. In human terms, this is known as socialism, a philosophy sadly abhorrent to US capitalist values.

There are numerous American charities formed to address many urgent needs, from finding a cure for cancer or AIDS to homes for abandoned or orphaned children, and more crop up at need. They are all private agencies, however. Our government clearly differentiates between caring for its constituents and providing opportunities. Tax breaks and free land use are afforded already wealthy corporations and military spending is increased while funding for education and the arts, healthcare, environmental concerns, food stamps, and low-income housing are cut to the bone. The cost of living increase for Social Security recipients was recently denied by the Republican controlled Congress and Senate.

In Flint, Michigan, celebrities and Muslim–yes, Muslim, not Christian–charities initiated provisions of clean water for residents poisoned by the state’s decision to switch the water supply to the industrially contaminated Detroit river. Meanwhile, their Republican governor, Rick Snyder, is pleading abuse at the criticism heaped on him and bemoaning the federal government’s fully justified refusal to provide disaster relief given he has a $575 million budget surplus with which to resolve the issue. Worse, he has been excused from appearing before Congress to explain why he appointed the emergency manager who made the fatal decision, or establish any responsibility for the death and suffering which occurred on his watch.

Snyder’s request for federal aid reveals where the priority lies when it comes to government support for those in need. Rather than recognizing value in improving standards of living and healthcare and education to better enable people to support themselves, the imperative is cost. Politicians take the phrase made famous in Ben Franklin’s 1736 edition of Poor Richard’s Alamanack, but actually coined by English political theorist Algernon Sidney, “God helps those who help themselves” too literally. While extremely reluctant to assist those without means, legislators are only too happy to contribute to the affluent’s pet projects, be it the taxpayer funding of athletic stadiums for billionaire owners of professional sports franchises, or, as here in Fort Lauderdale, contributing $65,000 towards two $175 per plate soirées being put on by the Food Network to promote a pair of its cooking shows.

The city’s contribution to these parties is especially insulting given it is the government which gained international notoriety, for passing laws to ban public feeding for the homeless, when their police “dutifully” arrested nonagenarian chef Arnold Abbott and two pastors who refused to accept the new laws’ moral validity, defying them by continuing their weekly feedings in front of the Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale and on the beach. Sun Sentinel political columnist Michael Mayo, who originally reported the decision to subsidize the dinner parties, one of which is being held next to the beach site where Chef Arnold appears, may have got the math wrong in his initial outrage when it came to how far $65,000 would go towards feeding the local homeless population–such a windfall would provide meals for 250 for an impressive two-and-a-half years, not a generation–but his advice for the Fort Lauderdale City Council, telling them “the optics of this look horrible” was right on the money.

In fact, as I sat in the wi-fi equipped atrium at the Courthouse Publix, waiting for the library to open and beginning this post, I was greeted by Hugh, a homeless friend from my days as the operations manager at a local drop-in center. He expressed his happiness to see I had graduated to a cane for support, rather than a walker. When I explained it was a case of good news and bad, the latter being I had been tossed out on the street by my assisted living facility as soon as my orthopaedist elevated me to full weight-bearing status on my injured leg, and I was chasing an emergency shelter bed every day until my name came up on the list for transitional housing at the HAC (Homeless Assistance Center), the only county shelter which offers a secular, non-chemical-dependence focused program for people on the street, he offered his sympathies, then warned me the police had recently stepped up their harassment against homeless people loitering along the downtown River Walk. The city’s attitude appears to be optics be damned. Why help people when you can sweep them into the cracks?

Of course, this is far from the only instance when the city chose to pander to the wealthy. The Downtown Development Authority, an agency tasked with collecting tax revenues from downtown businesses, is essentially holding Bubier Park hostage. Because the authority has put itself on the path to insolvency by granting tax exemptions to developers putting up luxury housing, it wants to either lease it to the city or, failing that, sell it off to developers–most likely with tax-exempt status. Coincidentally, Bubier Park is one of the few public places in Fort Lauderdale where the homeless can legally congregate while those interested wait for the Housing Authority, which closed the HUD Section 8 waiting list indefinitely in May, 2015, after just 200 applicants were housed, reopens it, and for the City Council to get around to providing zoning for social services to open offices within its borders, so homeless and veterans won’t have to spend entire days on buses to reach various offices, such as DCF, Social Security, and the VA.

Again, this is not about feelings of entitlement. If my caregivers in the hospital and assisted living had not promised certain things, I would not consider my situation anyone’s fault but mine. To be certain, I bear responsibility. I’ve always been a grasshopper rather than an ant, following my dreams rather than holding down a good job and saving for the future. As a result, I now find myself relying on others’ goodwill to survive.

Still, it wasn’t my fault someone ran me down and kept going when I attempted to cross the street in late August, shattering the tibia and fibula in my right leg, concussing me, and leaving me deaf in my right ear. The ridiculous amount of hit-and-runs committed in South Florida, typically by unlicensed, uninsured, and/or inebriated drivers, is a societal epidemic. Attempts to stiffen the laws against fleeing the scene are focused on fatalities, but, while I am fortunate to have survived, the trauma inflicted on my body is nonetheless life-changing. I can now walk on my own, but slowly and with pain, as I attempt to regain full strength and mobility. It will take time before I can accept a job with any physical challenges, and there is no guarantee I will return to 100%. As well, I await a specialist’s diagnosis to determine why I’ve been experiencing digestive issues, and whether they are result from internal injuries suffered in the accident.

At this point, I am confident I could perform an office job, perhaps in customer service or data entry. Seeking out such a position would be much easier, however, without having to explain the personal possessions I have in tow when appearing for an interview. Employers are not interested in hiring applicants with baggage, be it figurative or literal. That is why I was angry when I was given a schedule with the locations where the Homeless Task Force would appear to assign emergency shelter to those seeking it, after being told I would be transferred directly to the HAC program when my physician deemed me capable, and I would only be asked to leave assisted living when space at the HAC was available.

I was outraged at being given the bum’s rush, but not exactly shocked. When in Broward General Hospital, the trauma surgeon overseeing my case constantly pressed me to say I was sufficiently mobile to leave. That she could not discharge me until I was able to walk 150 feet with a walker, but otherwise under my own power, kept her from shoving me out the door immediately after surgery to insert a titanium rod in my leg, even though I was unaware of the regulation.

After perhaps a week, she went so far as to tell me hospital administrators were concerned at the cost I was incurring, and her job was at risk if she didn’t soon clear me. The next morning, after I had, through gritted teeth, explained to her my health was of greater concern to me than her employment, as eager as I was to leave, the chief trauma surgeon and three lackeys surrounded my bed–apparently assuming four goons were enough to intimidate a bed-ridden fifty-two-year-old–asking why I had given her a hard time. I recounted our exchange, at which point I was asked why I had refused physical therapy. Stunned, I nonetheless named it for what it was, an outright lie, and challenged them to produce the report, along with any therapist willing to back it up. That afternoon, the chief surgeon reappeared, alone and empty-handed, to apologize for the error.

He did explain I would be moving to assisted living in the near future. telling me a bed at Broward House, a facility designed to help people recover from severe injuries, was guaranteed. The promise, echoed repeatedly by the discharge coördinator, turned out to be false. When a bed didn’t immediately become available, I was transferred to a facility set up to handle clients with dementia and other mental and emotional conditions. The staff there was, on the whole, courteous and helpful, if I was not their usual problem. My experience dealing with chronically homeless allowed me to cope with the irrationality around me, and I made a few friends, both among staff and patients. Still, when their funding disappeared, the former were only to happy to show me the door.

Now, on the street for three days, awaiting my name to come up, I have at least been given shelter twice. On the one occasion I wasn’t, it was due to a large crowd and my inability to win a mad dash across a parking lot after arriving early, only for the Task Force vans to park on the opposite side from the mob. When I pointed out it might be appropriate for the infirm to be allowed to join first-timers and elderly at the front, I was told it wasn’t policy.

Yesterday, I again found myself at the rear of a thankfully much shorter line, so I repeated my suggestion. When the task force member tried to explain the policy to me, I pulled my expired County identification, from when I sat on the homeless advisory board, mentioned that I completely understood the importance of good policy, knew her boss, Lorraine Wilby, and politely suggested they discuss the matter to make theirs better.

I stopped short of suggesting my previous position in the community merited special treatment, as I don’t believe it does, despite an activist friend who offered me the kitchen floor in his cramped second-floor walk up studio on Tuesday evening, suggesting the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

While it wasn’t ideal, it was safer than the street. Jeff and I discussed the Dean of FIU’s School of Hospitality Management, Mike Hampton’s, decision to play it safe by refusing to call out Fort Lauderdale for its hypocritical involvement in the Food Network events, to protect the school’s own interest. Hampton’s politely worded return email cited numerous hunger aid projects the school has endorsed while never mentioning the city or Food Network. It was the equivalent of saying “I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black.” His–Jeff’s not Dean Hampton’s–normally cantankerous cat, Gary, then proved excellent company throughout the night, and in the morning I thanked both profusely.

In writing this, I don’t expect to be pampered and housed in one of Donald Trump’s spare bedrooms. That would be unrealistic, especially after telling this joke. However much time it takes, and suffering must be endured, I will make my own way, accepting the support of friends and relatives when offered, but not demanding anything from anyone. What I do wish, and will continue to advocate with more fervor, is that American society ratchet down its dog-eat-dog mentality, and replace cost with compassion as its greatest priority in deciding whether to provide needed social services.

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