Like many of South Floridas chronically homeless people, Ronald Poppo spent years living in the shadows, addicted to the bottle and unwilling to seek shelter or reach out to family.
A gruesome and bloody scene last Memorial Day weekend thrust Poppo out of his quiet anonymity. He fell victim to an unfathomable assault on the MacArthur Causeway that left him blind, with most of his face gnawed off.
The world turned its attention to Miamis zombie attack and for a brief moment its ongoing struggle with homelessness, an issue for which the city has long served as a model for cities across the country.
But in a move that advocates say could dent the citys progressive image, Miami commissioners last month voted to ask a federal court to alter the terms of a landmark settlement that bolstered the rights of the citys homeless.
The 1998 settlement of Pottinger v. Miami bars Miami police from arresting homeless people for involuntary, harmless acts without first offering them a bed in a shelter. Such acts include misdemeanors like sleeping on sidewalks, loitering and lighting cooking fires in parks.
The case led to the creation of shelters with thousands of beds throughout South Florida, and the founding of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, which has an annual budget upward of $40 million. Downtowns homeless population has dropped from about 6,000 before Pottinger.
Now, however, commissioners and the citys Downtown Development Authority argue that some of the rights afforded to homeless people by the Pottinger case should be eliminated. They say homeless transgressions like panhandling are severe disruptions to Miamis economic growth.
Although their numbers have shrunk, South Floridas homeless remain a visible and vulnerable city unto themselves. These men, women and children often are afflicted by a combination of drugs, alcohol, poverty and mental illness.
Some chronically homeless people have been out here between five and 30 years, said Ricky Leath, a homeless-outreach worker for the city.
The chronic ones 835 people in Miami-Dade County, 351 of whom live on Miamis streets routinely refuse shelter, usually because of addictions or because they have grown accustomed to being off the grid. Ronald Poppo personified both.
Poppos story mirrors those of other chronically homeless people in South Florida: They once had stable lives, careers and spouses, but lost their moorings, migrated south and wound up on the streets.
Local agencies have taken great strides in recent years to address the problem. Groups like the Homeless Assistance Center in Broward County and the Homeless Trust in Miami-Dade take regular, head-by-head counts of the regions homeless population.
We count every person from the Everglades to the ocean, said Homeless Trust Executive Director Hilda Fernandez.
The numbers help the agencies gauge what services are needed from nonprofit partners like Camillus House, the Miami Rescue Mission, Chapman Partnership and others.
While politicians, lawyers and advocates clash, the homeless themselves continue to trudge ahead the best they know how.
For some like Poppo, it could mean a life in the shadows, forever gripped by addiction and loneliness.
Jairo Mesa was the last outreach worker to try to talk Poppo into a shelter two days before last years attack. Poppo refused to leave his makeshift space in a parking-garage stairwell at Jungle Island.