A political battle is mounting over the chronically homeless in downtown Miami.
In one corner: the Miami City Commission, led by Chairman Marc Sarnoff, and the semi-autonomous Downtown Development Authority. They argue that a 15-year-old legal ruling known as Pottinger v. Miami is preventing city leaders from addressing chronic homelessness and are petitioning a federal judge for changes to the landmark settlement.
But they face opposition from powerhouse lobbyist Ron Book, who chairs the countys Homeless Trust. Book fears the proposed changes would result in warehousing of some of the citys homeless.
That wont happen while Im chairman, Book said. Theyll have to cart me out.
The pressure is on.
Last week, Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez wrote Book offering to pay for 15 new beds in Miami homeless shelters, but only if the Homeless Trust agrees to fund another 85. These beds will ensure, without a doubt, immediate relief for the homeless on our streets, Martinez wrote.
Book is holding firm that shelter beds are not the answer.
Its like, all of a sudden, somebody decided weve got this resurgence of homelessness downtown, and weve got to sweep these people into a building at night, Book said. Thats not productive. I cant let political expediency change what we do.
The Pottinger case, settled by consent decree in 1997, prevents Miami police from arresting homeless people for life-sustaining activities, such as sleeping on the street, without first offering them available shelter. The settlement led to a significant expansion of public services for the homeless.
Still, 351 homeless people live in downtown Miami, according to March report from the DDA.
On any given day, downtown is spotted with street dwellers. Many congregate around County Hall and the civil courthouse. Others sleep on the sidewalks in the business district.
It doesnt bother Eddi Quintana, who owns Joelos Dollar Store on North Miami Avenue.
They keep to themselves mostly, he said.
But Avi Smykyan, a downtown business owner for 18 years, said he regularly loses customers when homeless people wander over to his Perfume Express kiosk in the Flagler Station business park, 48 E. Flagler St.
When a homeless person comes and I have a customer, the customer doesnt feel secure, Smykyan said. It hurts business. Thats why you see so many empty stores around here.
Sarnoff says other business owners have complained, and that some of the life-sustaining activities allowed under Pottinger pose a threat to public safety.
You should not be allowed to have a fire in a park, he said. You should not be allowed to be nude. You should not be allowed to loiter in a restroom.
A new solution is needed, he said, to address those who are chronically homeless and likely to refuse help.
Sarnoff, the City Commission and the DDA are pursuing a two-pronged solution.
First, they are petitioning the judge to change the definition of life-sustaining conduct to exclude fires in parks, obstructing sidewalks, littering and lewd misconduct such as urinating in public. Those actions would become potentially arrestable offenses.
They also want to give police officers the power to arrest homeless people who refuse to go to a shelter three times in 180 days. The details of that proposal are still unclear, however, and have prompted concerns that the practice could be too far-reaching and violate the rights of the homeless.