For a destination that markets itself as one of the most attractive places to visit, a “Tent City” is not what visitors would expect.
But actually, for more than it is known as a big concern for neighbors of the infamous camping area at John Prince Park in Lake Worth, it is yet a hard-to-believe discovery for many locals in Palm Beach Couty.
At a recent town hall with United States Representative Lois Frankel organized by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County on what concerns voters in her district, the shameful, unsafe, and unhealthy situation of the so-called “Tent City” was one of them.
“I find it to be sad,” said one of the attendees who happens to live nearby and uses this park for routine walks. “I once wanted to make a picnic there and I started walking around to pick which tables I wanted and I saw these homeless people sleeping on top of the tables, on the chairs, doing all sorts of other things that are not healthy and I even called the health department; I also brought bags of toilet paper, toothbrushes but I think I actually made it worse than better. They got comfortable. So, this is my biggest concern. I like to ride my bike, walk, and I don’t feel safe there.”
There’s not an easy solution for this. According to people who do outreach and organizations like “The Lord’s Place” who are trying to help. There are probably about 150 people living in Tent City plus in other places in the park.
“What’s going on there,” said Congresswoman Frankel, “it’s a combination. They think 40% of the people who are living in Tent City, if they had housing for them—which they don’t—would not go to the homes. 60% are very severely mentally ill or are drug-addicted, and they are very difficult to help. But this is a big problem in Palm Beach County; finding a place that even working people can afford.”
Providing sufficient shelter space is key to removing the 70 or so tents in Tent City. Under federal court rulings, the county can’t deny the homeless life-sustaining activities such as sleeping and bathing if they don’t offer an alternative.
To help address overall homeless problems in the county, providing sufficient shelter space is key and there’s a long waiting list at the Lewis Center in West Palm Beach, the county’s only existing homeless resource center. It is evident that a swift action plan is needed to implement to deal with the number of people living in train stations, sleeping on benches in downtowns or putting up tents in public places like John Prince Park.
In the coming months, a temporary homeless shelter will open in a now-vacant old county correctional facility located next to the South Florida Fairgrounds after an ambitious plan was unanimously approved by Palm Beach County commissioners.
The new plan is aiming to end homelessness in Palm Beach County as part of the Leading The Way Home initiative that is designed to permanently solve homelessness for families residing in family emergency shelters focusing on health care, shared housing, case management from social workers and help from religious institutions and philanthropists to solve the perennial problem.
The old stockade could provide up to 125 beds of emergency shelter and could also become permanent housing for those staying there.
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Leading the Way Home serves as a framework for the policies and programs that address homelessness but should not be viewed as a stand-alone solution to a complex problem challenging cities and communities throughout the country, a problem exacerbated by the increased cost and inadequate supply of affordable housing and the prevalence of mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) issues.
In this regard, PBC Sheriff Ric Bradhsaw plans to increase patrols and law enforcement presence in the park as part of “Operation JPP” which will crack down on trespassing, public nudity, fires in the park, obstructing sidewalks, loitering in the restroom, littering, open container and any other violation(s) observed.
The strategy will also include more shelter, feeding, medical care, counseling, case management, and a pathway to permanent housing.
Palm Beach County has a population of nearly 1.5 million and approximately 1,134 households received assistance through the Leading the Way Home strategy in 2019. But there’s another red flag to look at; the number of homeless children in Palm Beach County, according to the School District, grew from 3,347 in 2016 to 4,415 in 2018.