FORT LAUDERDALE (CBS4) – If you started seeing more Fort Lauderdale Police officers patrolling the area around Stranahan Park this week, it’s no accident.
The city’s mayor, Jack Seiler, says it’s part of the city’s effort to clean up the park, which has become a haven for dozens of homeless men and women during the day. The park is on the busy corner of Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue and is adjacent to the county’s main library.
“Families don’t feel safe, people going to the library don’t feel safe, people wanting to use public resources don’t feel safe,” Seiler told CBS4’s Carey Codd. “It’s gone too far.”
The city believes the sight of the homeless is affecting tourism, nearby businesses and tarnishing the city’s image.
But the homeless say they have nowhere else to go.
“There’s people out here that need help,” said one homeless man who did not want to be identified. “There’s also people out here that don’t know how to get it. All (the city is) trying to do is take people to jail.”
The homeless say they congregate in the park because that is where outside groups come to feed the homeless or bring necessities to them. The homeless estimate there can be as many as 150 homeless people in the park during feeding times.
Keith Gooch is homeless. Gooch, who told CBS4 News that is a former Army veteran who served in Vietnam, believes the increased police pressure is uncalled for.
“There’s no real crimes being committed here in this park,” Gooch said. “If (the city has) a problem with it give us someplace that we can go.”
Seiler said the police are cracking down on crimes like public drunkenness, indecent exposure and urinating in public. Seiler also said he hopes the city commission passes a law banning panhandling and sleeping in public.
“It is not a crime to be homeless but at the same time if you are homeless and you are committing a crime, we will enforce the law and there will be an arrest or an appropriate penalty,” Seiler said.
Javier Moran — an employee at Verdi’s restaurant across the street from the park — said he was threatened at knife point by a homeless person. He also said he’s seen customers scared off by panhandlers.
“If you want to sit outside, you don’t want to be harassed by people looking for money,” Moran said.
The city says they have an extensive outreach program for the homeless — at the Homeless Assistance Center. Seiler added that if people obey the law — they can stay in the park during the day.
The city commission is expected to receive an update from staff at next week’s commission meeting on the progress of the city’s efforts.