City’s homeless to lose rights under pottinger settlement

Erick Johnson | 3/6/2014, 9 a.m.
The lives of hundreds of Miami’s homeless were dramatically impacted last Friday when a federal judge approved changes to a ...

The lives of hundreds of Miami’s homeless were dramatically impacted last Friday when a federal judge approved changes to a landmark settlement that gives less rights to the poor as city officials seek to clean up its streets to help revitalize the downtown.

With the stroke of a pen, Judge Federico Moreno on Friday signed off on a new Pottinger settlement, a 16 year old agreement named after Michael Pottinger, who along with two other homeless men, sued the City of Miami in 1988, accusing its police of harassment, abuse and arresting them without cause as they camped out at Bicentennial Park, which is now Museum Park on Biscayne Boulevard.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, their case snowballed into a huge class action lawsuit. ACLU lawyers discovered numerous civil rights violation were committed against 6,000 homeless residents, many whom had their personal items stolen, burned or confiscated by police for no apparent reason during sweeps before parades and special events downtown.

The homeless won their suit in 1992 but it took two appeals from the city and years of contentious negotiations before the Pottinger Settlement was finally established in 1998.

The agreement gave the homeless so-called life sustaining rights that allowed them to cook, bathe and sleep on the open streets and sidewalks without being harassed and abused by police. Even with filed complaints, police were not allowed to arrest the homeless but give them a warning when there were no shelters available. Arrests were allowed only when the homeless commits a misdemeanor and refuses to go to an available shelter when offered by police.

The Pottinger agreement set a major legal precedent that drew national attention and became a model for other major cities struggling handle the rising homeless population. In Miami the agreement helped dramatically reduce the number of arrests of the homeless and cast a spotlight on the plight of poor convincing voters to pass a penny sales tax on restaurants in 1993. The move created the Miami–Dade Homeless Trust, an organization that funds and helps manage the care of the homeless with other charities.

But with an estimated 70,000 people living in a downtown booming with flashy condominiums, museums, sports stadiums and retail shops, city leaders filed a motion in federal court 2013 to change the agreement. They said with a changing downtown, the Pottinger agreement had become outdated and should be balanced to reflect a modern, more sophisticated, world class city. The ACLU argued the new demographics doesn’t change the fact that about 500 homeless still live downtown near tourist attractions such as the American Airlines Arena, Bayside and the Arsht Center of the Performing Arts.

The two sides hammered out an agreement in January before Moreno approved the new Pottinger Settlement on Friday.

Under the new Pottinger Settlement, They will not be permitted to light fires in parks to cook or build tents to sleep.  Also, while they may still sleep on sidewalks, they cannot block the right-of-way of pedestrians. In addition, the homeless may not relieve themselves or bathe when there is a public restroom within a quarter of a mile.

Critics say the new agreement will open the homeless back up to more arrests and harrassment, but ACLU officials disagree, saying Pottinger maintains its core values of protecting the homeless from be criminalized just for being on the streets.

“I think that with the high number of homeless still on the street its important that we maintain the core values of Pottinger,” he said.