The readers’ forum

Miami bears disproportionate homeless burden

 

More than half of the 900 homeless people in Miami-Dade County live in the city of Miami. There are 500 homeless living within the city limits. No single community should have to bear such a disproportionate responsibility.

In its April 17 editorial, A delicate balance, The Miami Herald highlighted the great progress that the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust has made in reducing the numbers of homeless living on our streets. Chairman Ron Book should be proud of the agency’s achievements in the rest of the county, as should many others, including the city of Miami and the Miami Downtown Development Authority, which has put significant funds and resources into offering stable environments and pathways to rehabilitation for the homeless.

However, with a $42 million budget and an $8 million surplus last year, Book and the Trust should apply their resources and join the city’s efforts to address persistent chronic homelessness.

Miami is not at war with the homeless; if we were, we would have sought to completely undo the entire 1998 Pottinger settlement. But we do need the court to revisit a small portion of Pottinger and give it more definition, create better direction for law-enforcement officials and bring some of the restrictions in line with the realities we face in 2013.

When the Pottinger agreement was made the court never contemplated how police could deal with convicted sex offenders who are homeless and therefore cannot be placed in shelters that serve families and children. Today there are no homeless shelters within the city that can accept a convicted sex offender. Because Pottinger precludes us from offering them shelter more than one mile outside the city limits, these offenders and predators are allowed to live on our streets. The court could expand the shelter territory to the entire county, vastly improving our ability to help all our homeless population.

The editorial touts the number of beds available for the homeless, but those beds are distributed throughout the county and are often unavailable because they are reserved by other municipalities, such as Miami Beach, which doesn’t have to play by Pottinger’s rule that mandates Miami house its homeless in or near its city limits.

The Pottinger settlement never defined what it means to be chronically homeless, yet the Homeless Trust and its partners acknowledge there is a significant population of homeless individuals in the city of Miami who are mentally ill or substance abusers unwilling or incapable of accepting the help they need to re-enter society. And according to the Trust’s own census, that population has remained constant over the last three years even as the overall homeless population has gone down. We should all be asking how we as a community should address this disparity given that the current strategy hasn’t met with much success and the Homeless Trust is in the fortunate position of having $8 million carried over from last year’s budget.

No one is arguing that homeless people should have fewer rights or protections than the average citizen, but few would agree the homeless should have the right to break laws meant to safeguard the community. Right now, Pottinger gives people who identify themselves as homeless an enormous amount of latitude to do things most of us would never contemplate, such as expose themselves to defecate on the street, block a sidewalk to sleep or start a fire in a park for warmth. What The Herald failed to mention is that any person committing those “life-sustaining activities” in Doral, Coral Gables or any city other than Miami could be jailed for doing so because Pottinger doesn’t apply outside Miami city limits.

This is not a delicate balance. The city of Miami’s efforts are aimed at protecting the dignity and rights of all our citizens and not just a select few. Pottinger is imbalanced, and we need to do something about it for the sake of the homeless people whom we seek to help and the residents, workers and visitors to Miami whom we serve.

Rolando Montoya, chair, DDA Homeless Task Force, Miami

Jay Solowsky, pro bono DDA counsel, Miami

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