His face riven with lines forged by years on the streets, Gil reaches into the top pocket of his shirt and fishes out a wedge of grimy papers. These are the precious records of his life, documents the rest of us keep in a filing cabinet at home. Eventually he finds what he is looking for, a yellow slip that looks like a parking ticket.
That, as it happens, is about right, although Gil is not a man of many possessions and certainly not a car. He does, however, have size 13 shoes. In his hands is a police citation written a few weeks ago when an officer found him sitting on the kerb with his feet touching the road. “Feet in Roadway Disturbing Traffic,” it reads.
This is Fort Lauderdale, in Broward County, Florida, between Miami and Palm Beach, and Gil’s ticket – he gives his first name only – could be Exhibit A in what civil rights activists say is a creeping and insidious campaign by this and many other American cities to drive the homeless out of their midst by a combination of police harassment and increasingly draconian new ordinances that make being homeless a criminal offence.
It is a charge the city vehemently denies. But so far this year, it has passed two such laws, one making it illegal to urinate in public and another serving notice that any belongings left unattended on public property can be confiscated. More are pending, including one that would make it hard for charities to serve meals to the homeless in public spaces.
“It’s partly about the dollar but it’s also about the elitist mindset,” says Jeff Weinberger of the Broward Homeless Campaign. “They don’t want anything to upset their fantasy of a perfect existence.”
The homeless are an embarrassment for the town, said Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old former police chief from Pennsylvania and director of Love Thy Neighbour, an organisation that has been feeding homeless here for over 20 years. Five times the city has tried and failed in court to stop him serving meals each Wednesday on the beach beneath the tourist strip.
The town, he said, really wants the homeless to go away. “They would like to put them in a bus and send them to Miami or Palm Beach. It’s very close to ethnic cleansing. But they are not going to succeed.”