In my opinion

Daniel Shoer Roth: Miami’s push to criminalize homelessness

City of Miami officials failed to accomplish their iniquitous purpose of banning Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s nuns from feeding the poorest of the poor outside their Overtown convent. The community united in a cry of outrage so beautiful that it surely resounded in the heavenly kingdom and prompted a lump in the throat of our politicians and public servants.

Not so fast. Now the politicians have turned the helm of the boat of indifference to try to destroy certain protections implemented years ago that shield the homeless from wrongful arrests. That was an attempt to balance homeless people’s rights — given the miserable conditions in which they often live — with the rights of the other citizenry.

These officials seem incapable of learning that punishing the homeless instead of rehabilitating them is like pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill that will always end up falling by its own weight. Just like Sisyphus — the tormented Greek mythology character — they will find themselves in the rush of going back up their uphill path in a vain, endless circle.

Fifteen years ago, after the landmark class-action lawsuit Pottinger vs. City of Miami, local officials designed a model plan unmatched in the rest of the nation. A federal judge ruled that the city was violating the U.S. Constitution with its frequent police raids and revolving-door arrests of people experiencing homelessness and deemed public nuisances in parks and streets. The goal was to get them out of the vicious cycle of jail and aimlessness.

The settlement agreement bars the police from arresting a homeless person for performing a life-sustaining misdemeanor offense, such as sleeping or bathing in a public space, if there is not an available shelter bed to place him or her.

The philosophy behind it is that a human being should not be criminalized for being deprived of a roof over one’s head, nor should one’s deteriorated belongings be seized or destroyed.

In the face of a social calamity that doesn’t disappear on its own and the urgent need to protect the buoyant urban development of downtown and its residents, commissioners recently approved going to federal court to undo the homeless-protection settlement. They argue that the police must have authority to arrest homeless people who under Pottinger’s protection perform acts that non-homeless citizens would be arrested for.

I do not pretend to excuse the individuals who aggressively panhandle under a bridge, stink because they don’t bathe, satisfy their biological needs in the open, scare away people with their erratic behavior, escape from their heartbreaking reality by using drugs that lead them to violence. I, like you, don’t want to see them congregating on the sidewalk where I live nor do I act as an enabler of self-destructive behavior by giving them money.

Yet I won’t blame them either, because I believe in the Golden Rule, which asks that we use empathy to put ourselves in others’ shoes. They don’t choose their misfortune; it’s the path of life that has deviated them to darkness.

There are multiple detonators pushing them to life on the streets: the loss of a job, a foreclosure. In the case of chronic homeless, they can suffer from a mental disorder that separates them from their families or other health problems and traumas that push them to drugs or alcohol to deal with the pain.

To revive a carte blanche to violate the constitutional rights of this marginalized population by imposing harsh treatment would only exacerbate the problem not diminish it. That’s because it would displace the homeless population from the city’s core to other neighborhoods or municipalities of Greater Miami — which is exactly what the city government wants to pursue.

It would also overload the judicial system with people who are not reckless criminals. Rather, the majority are people suffering from mental illness and, or, substance abuse in need of appropriate treatment.

Before airing such rash proposals, the city should work toward creating and expanding programs to provide the homeless with shelter, meals, counseling, job training and medical assistance.

If the endless waiting lists for getting a shelter bed continues, where are these people who have found an inhospitable home on the rough asphalt going to sleep, eat or use a bathroom?

The excuse offered by commissioners and attorneys representing Big Business is that by arresting the homeless, the courts can offer them the opportunity to enter a rehabilitation program. Before taking them to jail, local governments should have set up a variety of social services to tend to them. Under the current Pottinger settlement, law enforcement has the ability to place homeless people into shelter beds now, where they can access appropriate treatment programs.

In a sweet conversation with Sister Lima Marie, superior of the Missionaries of Charity convent, she shared with me that when she looks at a homeless person knocking on her door, she sees a soul like any other. It would be so enlightening if city officials could cultivate that empathy with other people’s suffering and share that same vision.

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