Miami seeks to rescind rights of the homeless

Is rationale to help the unfortunate or eliminate an eyesore?

D. Kevin McNeir | 9/19/2013, 9 a.m.
In August 2012, The Miami Times published a front page story that tackled the issue of hunger, poverty and homelessness ...

In August 2012, The Miami Times published a front page story that tackled the issue of hunger, poverty and homelessness in Miami. At that time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 46.2M U.S. citizens had slipped into poverty — the largest number in the Bureau’s 52 years of publishing statistics. Then, as now, Blacks, senior citizens and children were disproportionately represented and were the most in need. Blacks seeking food from Feeding South Florida [FSF] accounted for 61.2 percent of FSF’s clients — twice as much as Hispanics (30.4 percent) with whites only making up 6.6 percent.

The situation grew more grave, with SFS seeing a 30 percent jump in the number of clients it served in the four-county South Florida region, totaling over one million, according to agency’s director of advancement, Lisa Stoch.

But these troubling statistics, where hunger is often directly related to homelessness, have not stopped the recent move by the City of Miami to remove 500 chronically-homeless people who “live” in the City’s downtown


In an act that was first initiated last April, City leaders and members of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority [DDA] are asking a federal court to modify a long-standing ruling that gives the homeless the right to conduct “life-sustaining” acts — including lighting cooking fires in public parks, sleeping on sidewalks and urinating in public – without getting arrested.

Now, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has thrown his weight behind the efforts of the City and the DDA. Together, they are asking the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust to spend up to $13M on hundreds of new beds. But what is the real motivation?

Who truly benefits, the homeless or big business?

Gimenez says the effort is about more than just sprucing up a now-revitalized Biscayne Boulevard and Flagler Street area, thus making it more appealing for the increased number of tourists that are coming to Miami.

“It’s actually a moral issue — nobody should be sleeping in the streets of Miami,” he said.

But Ron Book, Homeless Trust chairman, says otherwise, and remains unwilling to try to force the chronically homeless to use overnight shelter beds. He opposes the proposal to add more beds.

“Shelter beds are warehousing,” he said. “It just allows people to come in at night and shower and sleep – then they leave.”

Much of today’s discussion can be traced back to the 1988 Pottinger v. Miami case in which 5,000 homeless people and the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] sued the City, positing that the practice of clearing the streets of the homeless and throwing away their belongings because of loitering, sleeping on sidewalks, etc., was unconstitutional. The case was settled with a consent decree, stating that the police could no longer arrest the homeless for “involuntary, harmless acts” without first offering them a bed in a shelter. That led to the County forming the Homeless Trust. In the last 10 years, the Trust has lowered M-DC’s homeless population from a record-high 8,000 to 800, spending an estimated $55M annually in housing and services.

DDA says homeless hurting business

DDA Chairman and chair of the city commission, Marc Sarnoff, says the estimate of 800 chronically homeless in downtown Miami is twice as much as it was four years ago. He adds that they are sleeping in doorways and sidewalks, frightening tourists and area workers, harassing locals and aggressively panhandling.

The case, filed in federal court last week, notes that times have significantly changed in Miami. Unlike in 1988, today the number of people living in the downtown corridor has doubled to 65,000 and about 200 new restaurants and stores have opened in the area in the past five years.

Book says the City wants to “sweep people off the street” but they can’t unless the law is changed. And because the beds aren’t available, he says the DDA is hoping to force his agency into purchasing 350 new ones. The Trust added 85 more beds last July after the being awarded $260K from the City.

A legal representative from the ACLU said their position has not changed and that they intend to counter the arguments of the DDA, the City and their supporters.


Homeless sign