Words speak louder than action: West Palm Beach’s lack of transparency with homeless "solutions"
Updated: May 26, 2020
A new mayor, a new position and a new plan are all part of what West Palm Beach officials describe as a battle against the homelessness epidemic in South Florida.
Mayor Keith A. James, a West Palm Beach resident for the last 30 years, is one of many recent changes promoted by the city, having been sworned in to his position on March 12, 2019.
Since his public election last spring, James has made it his personal goal to implement more than a simple “resident-friendly” county regime. He aims to tackle what the mayors before him have failed to properly address: homelessness within the confines of the city.
“The issue of homelessness is a concern for just about every city in the United States, whether it’s [from] mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction or someone just being down on their luck,” James said.
Raised by a single mother in the backwoods of Wichita, Kansas, James openly ties his personal experiences with the community projects he initiates.
Of the public-oriented projects he’s taken on within the last year, James’ most noteworthy is a strategic housing plan he has since christened the “300 in 3” campaign.
Formally announced at Palm Beach County’s annual State of the City address on Jan. 21, the “300 in 3” campaign is an active proposal to create 300 “affordable housing units” for low-income individuals within three years of its starting date.
On Feb. 11, James reported that of the 300 proposed housing units, approximately 87 are well underway and will be subject to a ribbon-cutting within the next week.
In addition to his housing initiatives, James established a new position for Homelessness Services Coordinator, appointing Palm Beach resident Marcus Laws to take on the role. Laws will work hands-on with the current efforts of Housing & Community Development in its strive to make lives better for the destitute individuals of Palm Beach County.
Laws has worked for several years as a counselor, an active employee for mental health institutions and a supervisor for The Lord’s Place.
These projects reflect James’ slogan, “Community of Opportunity for All.” But despite the publicity and community involvement initiated by these innovations, one question remains: Is Mayor James making promises to the public that he cannot keep?
In an effort to dissipate any rising concern from the city’s residents, James and Laws held a press conference on Feb. 11, several days after Laws’ new position was announced to the public.
An article in the Weekly Insider said the event would occur on Tuesday, Feb. 11 from 11:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.
James began his speech by pinpointing the success rates of the city’s current community
projects, specifying that Palm Beach County’s homeless rates decreased by approximately 25% within the last year.
Although this statistic supports the physical progress of the mayor’s efforts, he made it clear to the press that moral and ethical factors are just as important, if not more so.
“As we move forward, we must continue to address the issue of homelessness in a compassionate manner,” James said. “We must always keep in mind that these are people and, in many cases, families.”
I used the press conference as an opportunity to shed light on a distinct issue regarding how public businesses are legally allowed to treat homeless individuals.
Addressing James firsthand, I questioned how the mayor’s “compassionate approach” toward homelessness would be affected by the ordinances strategically put in place by various counties in West Palm Beach.
According to Palm Beach County Code of Ordinance 15-36, individuals residing in the city are hereby allowed “to participate in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and, to that end, to prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation,” a decree unaffected by race, gender, sexual orientation, and other demographics.
However, this civilian right is both morally and ethically contradicted through the establishment of Ordinance 15-57, a loophole exposed to the mayor and the press when I recounted a case covered by The Beacon Today in 2017.
Written by reporter Zoe Hazen, the archived article recounts an incident between then-college student, Tabitha Le, and the local business, Field of Greens.
Le and her friends were enjoying lunch at the dining establishment and invited a homeless man named Rodney to dine with them.
As reported by Hazen, the manager of Field of Greens heavily discouraged Le from engaging with Rodney. This public action against the presence of the homeless man was well within the legal rights of the public business.
Despite County Ordinance 15-57’s explicit guidelines regarding any form of discrimination against an individual, the restaurant in question was protected by the ordinance itself, as Hazen reported that homelessness is considered a “housing status,” and therefore does not fall under the discrimination policy.
After recounting the scenario to those participating in the press conference, the mayor avoided the direct question about what he would do to fix this problem.
“I cannot speak to that specific instance,” James said, “But I do know that Marcus working along with our police, we are going to enforce our ordinances to the best of our ability.”
Immediately after this statement was made, James shut down the press conference and dismissed the reporters and attendees. The timing of this gesture occurred at exactly 11:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the press conference was scheduled to end.
James did more than refuse to properly acknowledge my question regarding the negative impact the ordinances have on the homeless community. He intentionally glossed over the issue itself by diverting attention back to Laws and the corresponding efforts the public was already aware of.
Ultimately, are the mayor’s changes a glimpse of an achievable solution to the homelessness epidemic, or additional propaganda designed to conceal the ugliness of a much deeper-rooted situation?
Until James and his appointees are willing to come forward and answer questions that don’t always have a positive answer, thoughts such as these will not be uncommon in the minds of residents and wandering individuals of Palm Beach County.
By Brenna Brown