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Fort Lauderdale Vice Mayor On The City's Yearlong Housing Plan For The Homeless

Vice Mayor and city commissioner Ben Sorensen is working from a homeless encampment to bring light to the issue of homelessness
Ben Sorensen
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Fort Lauderdale’s vice mayor is a key player in the city’s efforts to help the homeless population by providing them with yearlong housing, job opportunities and mental health services.

The city of Fort Lauderdale made national headlines a few years ago after authorities arrested then 90-year-old Arnold Abbott for feeding the homeless in areas not designated for that activity. In 2017, bulldozers cleared out a homeless encampment in Stranahan Park.

But Vice Mayor Ben Sorensen is taking a different approach to homelessness. In early May, Sorensen moved his office from a cozy air-conditioned space to a homeless encampment next to the Main Library. He worked out of a tent, holding meetings with constituents and the public, and spending time with the inhabitants of the camp.

On Monday, the city held a commission meeting over the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s proposed affordable micro-units for low-income and previously homeless residents. Sundial spoke to Vice Mayor and Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Ben Sorensen of District 4 about the latest efforts to provide better solutions for the homeless.

WLRN: What's happened to [the] encampment? All of those folks are now gone. Right?

SORENSON: Correct. So this led to an incredible effort led by United Way of Broward County along with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance and Business Leaders -- all collectively working together to raise money. So through city contribution, county contribution or donation and other businesses we raised about $4.4 million to provide housing for all of these individuals and so these folks are currently housed and on the path to housing, as well as jobs, mental health treatment.

What can you tell us about this housing?

It's been in various spots around the county and one of the real positive initiatives under this umbrella is the landlord program, a housing first program within this umbrella ... us, as community members, reaching out to landlords and property owners around the county and saying, "Hey! Mrs. Landlord would you be willing to provide one apartment for a homeless person?" And we will provide case management for that person, pay rent for this individual and will provide a risk pool, which covers any damages beyond the security [deposit] as it happened. And we will cover those costs. So we have landlords around the county where these folks are now living.

Is it just temporary housing or is this more permanent? How does that work out?

We view this as permanent housing. They're signing yearlong leases and with continued efforts to raise the resources and funding we view this as a long term solution. A lot of these folks that have not had jobs are now able to get jobs.

Just a quick anecdote. Several of my friends down in the encampment were wanting jobs, [they're] able to work five to 10 hours but they could only work when someone would watch their possessions at the encampment. So now this has the opportunity to really increase employment.

Coming back to the housing, how long is the city willing to pay for them?

The city committed about $1.2 million, the county committed about $1.2 million and businesses in addition and beyond that. And so as a city we committed to one year but we're very interested as long as its working and folks you know put forth effort ... we're very interested in continuing our support.

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Alejandra Martinez is the associate producer for WLRN&rsquo's Sundial. Her love for radio started at her mother’s beauty shop where she noticed that stories are all around her - important stories to tell.