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Pressure Mounts To 'Commandeer' Hotels For Coronavirus

Homelessness in the U.S. was already at crisis levels before the coronavirus hit. When it did, some cities began arranging for people experiencing homelessness to stay socially isolated in empty hotels.  

Fort Lauderdale has been doing the opposite. In March, city commissioners voted to crack down on the homeless, moving to extend a ban on camping, which now covers downtown, to areas within 1,000 feet of any school or child care center. A second and final vote on the matter has been postponed until the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

Fort Lauderdale Beach
Luxury projects on Fort Lauderdale Beach: Looking northward from the balcony of the recently renovated W, one can see the Hilton, a lot where a Four Seasons is planned and the Conrad Hotel and Residences.

Jeff Weinberger, a longtime homeless advocate and founder of the October 22 Alliance to End Homelessness, is organizing a demonstration Thursday to call on the city to mandate hotels be used to house Fort Lauderdale's at-risk homeless population. He said activists will be gathering at the Broward County Government Center.

"We want to see [the city] provide motel rooms immediately to everyone in an at-risk category," he said. The group eventually hopes local governments can provide permanent housing for all of them.

Two weeks ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Project Roomkey to house shelter residents in 6,000 hotel rooms, City Lab reported. Other cities followed: New York City is putting about 6,000 people in hotels. Los Angeles secured 1,700 rooms and King County, Washington, is using 400. The governor of Connecticut ordered shelters to move residents to hotel rooms if social distancing isn't possible.

Fort Lauderdale's city leaders said that kids walking by homeless encampments see people doing drugs and defecating in public, the Sun-Sentinel reports. If the stricter measure were to pass, violators could be fined up to $500 and jailed for up to 60 days.

Homelessness has been a contentious issue in Fort Lauderdale for decades, with various "tent cities" popping up. In the early 2000s, the city made world news by outlawing feedings of homeless people. About a year ago, an encampment by the city's main library was cleared and about 80 people moved into permanent housing. But Broward County still has an estimated 2,300 people experiencing homelessness. 

Amid the coronavirus, some shelters stopped taking in new people last month. Weinberger said he found it ironic that in March, when the Zandaam cruise ship docked in Fort Lauderdale with coronavirus patients, Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine suggested “commandeering” an empty hotel to isolate passengers.

"They can commandeer a hotel for people who can afford to take a huge cruise, but they can't commandeer a hotel for people at risk or at shelters?" Weinberger said. 

The federal government does have the right to seize property for emergencies, according to Hotel Management. When President Donald Trump declared a national emergency under the Stafford Act on March 13, he authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use eminent domain to acquire facilities and supplies. FEMA could immediately appropriate buildings, land and supplies, but would have to compensate owners for it. States have and are considering similar measures, and fighting them would be "an uphill battle" for any property owner, four attorneys at Carlton Fields wrote last month.

So far, governments have been negotiating with hotels, not doing hostile takeovers, in hopes the facilities will be happy to have revenue coming in. But according to USA Today, around the country, hotel executives have had reservations about taking in quarantined people, citing staff who would need proper personal protective equipment, whether they could have sufficient sanitization procedures in place, and whether those locations would fail to regain bookings when business picks up again.

In Kentucky, authorities prepared to spend to spend up to $70K to house 40 people at a Springhill Suites for the month of April — but they were turned down by the hotel, the Washington Post reported. Zoning or liability issues were cited as concerns. 

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty identified $190B in the CARES Act that could potentially be used toward housing people experiencing homelessness. 

The homeless in Fort Lauderdale typically shower and wash at the library, bus station or fast-food restaurants — all of which are now closed. Though there hasn't been a documented outbreak of the coronavirus among the state's homeless, there is also no testing system in place.

The county is considering spending $550K to purchase mobile shower/restroom stations, and the head of the local Convention & Visitors Bureau is in discussions with hotels about what can be done. Some homeless advocates believe that funds should be spent expanding permanent options for the homeless, rather than on short-term hotel stays. 

"[Forty] years of failed housing policy has allowed private developers to decide what housing gets built, and it’s rarely the affordable kind," Weinberger wrote in an editorial for the Sun-Sentinel. "All with the blessings of politicians at every level of government."