Wristbands, seg­re­ga­tion at Florida shel­ter

Home­less woman says deputies treated her fam­ily like crim­i­nals

The Dallas Morning News - - Nation - Ja­son Dearen and Kelli Kennedy, The As­so­ci­ated Press

ST. AU­GUS­TINE, Fla. — Shelby Hoogendyk says that when she, her hus­band and her 17-month-old son ar­rived at an emer­gency shel­ter as Hur­ri­cane Irma closed in, they were sep­a­rated from oth­ers by yel­low wristbands and told to stay in an area with other peo­ple like them — the home­less.

Sher­iff ’s deputies, she says, told them the wristbands were prompted by prob­lems that arose among home­less peo­ple at the shel­ter dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Matthew a year ear­lier.

“We were treated like we were guilty crim­i­nals,” Hoogendyk says.

In the storm’s wake, home­less peo­ple and their ad­vo­cates are com­plain­ing that some of them were turned away, seg­re­gated from the oth­ers, de­nied cots and food, de­prived of med­i­ca­tion re­fills and doc­tors’ vis­its, or oth­er­wise ill-treated dur­ing the evac­u­a­tion.

Many of the com­plaints have been blamed on mis­un­der­stand­ings, the sheer mag­ni­tude of the dis­as­ter, the crush of peo­ple need­ing shel­ter im­me­di­ately, or in­ad­e­quate state and lo­cal emer­gency plan­ning.

All told, a record 72,000 Florid­i­ans sought refuge from the hur­ri­cane in early Septem­ber at nearly 400 shel­ters. The re­sponse var­ied widely by county.

In Mi­ami, over 700 home­less were picked up and taken to shel­ters. In Col­lier County, the sher­iff sent of­fi­cers into home­less en­camp­ments in the woods to bring peo­ple to a shel­ter. But in Polk County, Sher­iff Grady Judd warned that any evac­uees with war­rants against them and all sex of­fend­ers seek­ing shel­ter would be taken to jail. And in Vo­lu­sia County, some of­fi­cials were ac­cused of turn­ing home­less evac­uees away from shel­ters with­out ex­pla­na­tion.

“Com­mu­ni­ties were all deal­ing with the fall­out of not hav­ing very com­pre­hen­sive plan­ning in place to deal with this pop­u­la­tion,” said Kirsten An­der­son, lit­i­ga­tion di­rec­tor at South­ern Le­gal Coun­sel, a non­profit pub­lic in­ter­est law firm in Florida.

She said if a shel­ter dis­crim­i­nated against peo­ple based on their eco­nomic sta­tus, it could be a vi­o­la­tion of fed­eral law that pro­tects peo­ple in fed­eral dis­as­ter zones.

In Hoogendyk’s case, St. Johns County Sher­iff David Shoar and school of­fi­cials who ran the shel­ter at Pe­dro Me­nen­dez High vig­or­ously de­nied seg­re­gat­ing the home­less, say­ing the yel­low wristbands were sim­ply used to iden­tify peo­ple with “spe­cial needs” — sub­stance abuse prob­lems, men­tal ill­ness or other “frail­ties” — who needed to be closer to the bath­rooms.

But Hoogendyk said nei­ther she nor her hus­band claimed any spe­cial needs when they checked in. Other home­less peo­ple said they, too, were au­to­mat­i­cally is­sued the yel­low wristbands, while oth­ers around them got blue or other col­ors de­not­ing them as part of the “gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.”

Gary Usry, a 57-year-old home­less man who ar­rived at the same St. Au­gus­tine shel­ter, said the first night was rough.

“We were left on con­crete floor overnight. No blan­ket, no noth­ing,” he said. Usry said a few cots were pro­vided to peo­ple with wristbands of other col­ors, but not to any of the home­less in his yel­low-band sec­tion. Usry said he felt “in­sulted, de­meaned.”

While in­sist­ing home­less peo­ple were not sin­gled out, the sher­iff also said that the home- less pop­u­la­tion has “a dis­pro­por­tion­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of those with men­tal ill­ness, sub­stance abuse prob­lems and, quite frankly, those with crim­i­nal back­grounds.”

Sher­iff ’s spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mul­li­gan said that last year, dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Matthew, there were nu­mer­ous ar­gu­ments, fights and in­stances of drunk­en­ness among home­less peo­ple at the shel­ter.

Else­where around Florida, Robin Wil­liams said she and about 60 oth­ers from the home­less-as­sis­tance group where she works, the Florida Keys Out­reach Coali­tion, spent their first night as evac­uees sleep­ing on a cold, hard gym­na­sium floor with no cots, blan­kets or food. The glar­ing lights stayed on all night, she said.

Over the next few days, the 30 or so spe­cial-needs evac­uees among them were shuf­fled to var­i­ous lo­ca­tions.

Just down the road, hun­dreds of other evac­uees from the Keys rested com­fort­ably with cots, hot meals, free toi­letries and show­ers, Wil­liams said.

“What these peo­ple have been through bor­ders on crim­i­nal,” she said.

Shelby Hoogendyk

Shelby Hoogendyk pho­tographed her hus­band, Casey Huff­man, with their 17-month-old son Cae­lan at a hur­ri­cane shel­ter in St. Au­gus­tine, Fla., where she said they were given yel­low wristbands and sep­a­rated from other evac­uees.

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