Look at the streets of any large urban city 20 years ago, 10 years ago or today, and one realizes that it’s likely that the homeless will always be with us. But unlike so many cities where homeless populations have stayed the same or increased, Miami has a good-news story to tell. During the past 20 years, the number of people living on its streets and sleeping under its overpasses has plummeted.
According to Ron Book, chairman of Miami-Dade County’s Homeless Trust, there were 8,000 homeless 20 years ago when the group was established. Now, because the community developed a comprehensive system to rehabilitate homelessness — and even prevent it — he says that there are 900 throughout the county. That’s a whopping decrease.
There are about 350 in downtown Miami, people who are considered chronic homeless — that is, they have been on the streets for a year or more. And these are the ones that the city of Miami and the Downtown Development Authority have targeted through a petition to loosen restraints on police to arrest and remove homeless people from public view.
The request is understandable. Downtown Miami is undergoing a long-overdue renaissance. High-rise condos have brought thousands of additional residents. Two new museums in Bicentennial Park are going to draw thousands more when they open.
But let’s be clear: Any modification that criminalizes homelessness is a step in the wrong direction. The city has already tried that, and it was correctly slapped down as a dehumanizing violation of homeless people’s rights.
Homeless people — and panhandlers, most of whom, according to Mr. Book, actually have a place to sleep indoors — have not impeded progress, but they have put a tarnish on downtown’s new shine. Then, of course, there is the waste of human potential that degrades any civil society where people are allowed to live without a roof over their heads.
The DDA wants to modify a 1998 federal consent decree that prevents police from arresting homeless people loitering, littering, starting cooking fires in parks and blocking sidewalks. The so-called Pottinger settlement calls those “life-sustaining activities’’ that homeless people need to carry out in public to survive. They could only be arrested for these minor offenses if they refused to go to an available bed in a shelter.
At the time, homeless people were an abundant fixture downtown. Men wielding dirty rags and spray bottles pounced on every other car stuck at a red light. Disheveled men looking for a handout lurched into traffic waiting to get on the expressway. Police charged in, sweeping up homeless people in parks, on benches, in doorways, carting them off to jail. Officers burned the belongings left behind. Two homeless men, Michael Pottinger and Peter Carter, said, “Enough.” They went to court and, eventually, won.
Since then, this community has been in the forefront of treating homelessness. There are 8,000 emergency, transitional and permanent beds. The Homeless Trust, on whose board Mayor Tomas Regalado sits, runs two Homeless Assistance Centers and has a $52 million budget.
Given Pottinger’s “arrest if they refuse a bed” provision, this already seems to be the best tool yet to help the chronically homeless. The Trust has programs in place to keep those discharged from jail from returning to the streets. One thing, is certain: This renaissance city cannot return to the bad old days when being homeless was a crime.