Imagine this: without warning, government agents barge into your home and throw away all your belongings—clothes, photos, medications, school supplies, books, legal documents—including your birth certificate—and more. There's no way for you to recover anything, because everything was tossed out or destroyed. All that remains are what you carried with you and the clothes you wore that day.
That is exactly what happened to our ten plaintiffs on May 19, 2017, in Fort Lauderdale. The only difference between the hypothetical above and what transpired in Fort Lauderdale? What our clients consider home is likely different than what you consider home. You see, our clients lived in between a park and a library in downtown Fort Lauderdale. They are homeless.
While many of us are fortunate enough to have walls around us and a roof to protect us, not everyone is so lucky.
There are more than 30,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in Florida, with 47 percent of those individuals sleeping outdoors or on the streets of our cities. This is driven in large part by an affordable-housing crisis. There is no state, county, or city in this country where a worker earning minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom rental apartment at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour week. As one of our clients’ friends put it, “If you live paycheck to paycheck, you’re two paychecks away from being on the streets like the rest of us.”
Cities and states throughout our country criminalize homelessness and Florida is no exception. Criminalizing homelessness comes in the form of ordinances banning sleeping, camping, storing personal property, sitting, lying down, panhandling, and sharing food with those who are homeless or hungry. These laws make it illegal for individuals who are homeless to do what is necessary for their survival, such as eating, sleeping, or merely being present in public spaces.
Our governments are directly attacking these vulnerable communities. In May 2017, the City of Fort Lauderdale threw away the belongings of homeless individuals who lived outside Stranahan Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The City did this without any warning and without providing a way for people to retrieve their belongings. Some people lost literally everything they owned that day except for the clothes they were wearing. Items that the City threw away included individuals’ books for school, other school supplies, family photos, legal documents, medications, sleeping supplies, clothes they wore to look for work, hygiene products, and irreplaceable family keepsakes. Now our clients must spend the few resources they have trying to replace these items, but we know many of these items are irreplaceable.
The ACLU of Florida, together with Southern Legal Counsel, filed a lawsuit in June 2017 against the City of Fort Lauderdale for this violation of our clients’ constitutional rights. Specifically, the City’s actions were a violation of our clients’ right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and their right to due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. After a year of litigation, the City agreed to settle the case and pay to compensate our clients for the loss of property and for their pain and suffering.
We hope that other cities will take note and understand that these types of actions do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness. These actions cause unnecessary injury to our homeless neighbors. And if cities continue to pursue these punitive and unconstitutional policies, our organizations—the ACLU of Florida and Southern Legal Counsel, a Florida statewide non-profit public-interest law firm—will stand with the homeless communities and defend their rights.
Individuals who are homeless are just like anyone else: young, old, students, veterans, parents, intelligent, hard-working, disabled, articulate, inquisitive, funny, artistic, interesting, kind, friendly, and determined. They remain positive and hopeful. They are survivors.
In many cases, if you saw them out in public, maybe at the library or passing in the street, you'd have no idea they were homeless. Not a clue.
How can we, both as individuals and as a society, assist our most vulnerable neighbors? Talk to them. Find out what they need. Smile. Treat them like human beings. Volunteer. Tell your city, county, and state to do more to address the affordable-housing crisis. Speak out against criminalizing homelessness. Participate in food-sharing programs in your area. Donate to organizations working to end homelessness. Join groups that work on these issues. Get involved.
Unlike these clients, most of us have never had to worry about having a roof over our head or where our next meal would come from. Even if our personal experiences are different than those of homeless individuals, that is inconsequential when it comes to taking a stand against government overreach. Our activism and protection of civil rights and liberties shouldn't depend on whether the marginalized group is one in which we are a member.
Why should we care? We should care because individuals without housing are human beings. We should care because when the government uses its power to harm anyone, it is an attack on all of us. The Constitution protects everyone. Not just people we can relate to, not just our friends, not just powerful people, and not just people the government picks and chooses. Everyone means everyone, from the likes of Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg to the men, women, and children without housing.
We should care about how cities are treating our homeless brothers and sisters because the Constitution, and our humanity, demand it.
 Florida Council on Homelessness, 2017 Annual Report, available at http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/homelessness/docs/Homelessness%20Report%202017.pdf
 National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing” (2018), available at http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/OOR_2018.pdf