The City of Miami, concerned that loitering homeless people are stunting downtown growth, will go to federal court in an attempt to undo major provisions of a historic legal agreement that for 15 years has protected the homeless from undue arrest and harassment by police.
Miami commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to petition the courts to alter a landmark settlement in the 1988 Pottinger v. Miami case, in which 5,000 homeless people and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city, contending that the police practice of sweeping them off the streets and dumping their belongings for loitering, sleeping on sidewalks or other minor offenses was unconstitutional.
The case, settled by consent decree in 1998, led to a significant expansion of public services to the homeless that has been held up as a national model. The settlement also bars Miami police from arresting homeless people for such “involuntary, harmless acts’’ without first offering them an available bed in a shelter.
Under the resolution adopted Thursday, which drew little to no public attention before the commission meeting, the city will hire an outside attorney to ask a federal judge to grant police greater latitude to detain homeless people and seize and dispose of their belongings. The city will also ask the judge to exclude sexual predators from the Pottinger settlement’s protections.
The effort has been spearheaded by the city’s semi-autonomous Downtown Development Authority, which is tasked with helping the city’s downtown businesses grow. Attorney Jay Solowsky, working with the DDA on a pro bono basis, told commissioners that homelessness is “the single most significant issue we are facing downtown.” Marc Sarnoff, chairman of the city commission and the DDA, works in Solowsky’s office.The city move comes as new downtown condos have attracted tens of thousands of residents, with dozens more residential towers now in development.
Police told commissioners that homeless people are scaring downtown workers and families going to Miami Heat games by aggressively panhandling, blocking sidewalks and defecating in public. As officers spoke, pictures of naked homeless people and garbage they left behind were displayed on video screens in the commission chamber.
Since the Pottinger settlement, police and city officials say, circumstances have improved significantly for the homeless, with thousands of new beds in shelters and permanent homes around the county. That has reduced the downtown homeless population from around 6,000 to 351, according to the latest official count.
Most of those remaining on the streets are considered chronically homeless, meaning they refuse help. Those are the people that police and city officials say are making life difficult for downtown residents, workers and visitors.
But the Pottinger rules make it difficult for police to arrest them for offenses such as loitering, littering, starting cooking fires in parks and blocking sidewalks. The Pottinger settlement defines those as “life sustaining activities’’ that homeless people without recourse to shelter need to carry out in public, without fear of arrest, to survive.
Only if they refuse an available shelter bed can they be arrested for those minor offenses under the agreement.
One prominent advocate said those guidelines already give police plenty of latitude to arrest homeless people.