The streets, underpasses and parks of greater Miami are no longer home to 8,000 homeless people living, sometimes in the shadows, often in full view of the comfortably situated.
For 20 years, our community has been a national leader in getting homeless families and individuals off the streets, into treatment, a job, school and permanent housing. But the work isn’t done.
Credit the Homeless Trust for making a difference. Acknowledge, too, Camillus House, and other nonprofit agencies, for providing shelter and programs to divert those living on the streets.
The courts, also, have had an impact, and that is where the current debate on how to handle a small knot of chronic homeless people resides once again.
Of the 900 or so hardcore homeless in the county, Miami bears a disproportionate burden of them. About 300 live in the city’s downtown alone. Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff and the Downtown Development Authority want the courts to loosen the restraints imposed in 1998 by a settlement known as the Pottinger consent decree.
Pottinger prevents police from arresting homeless people who loiter, litter, start cooking fires in parks and block sidewalks — considered “life-sustaining activities.” At the time, homelessness was unfairly criminalized; police were abusive. Pottinger put an end to the indignity.
But the consent decree has not been without repercussions, namely the core of about 300 homeless who won’t budge from downtown. Mr. Sarnoff and the DDA want the courts to modify Pottinger, petitioning 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 would be offenses for which the homeless could potentially be arrested.
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. Opponents rightly worry about criminalizing homelessness again. Jail is not where the homeless belong.
At the same time, the City Commission on Thursday will consider a sensible resolution proposed by Mr. Sarnoff in which the city would pay for 15 shelter beds, at about $164,000 a year if the Homeless Trust funds 85 beds from its $52 million budget. But the Trust only wants to fund “emergency beds” which automatically bring mental health, substance abuse and other services.
Yet the overnight shelter beds, at Camillus House, not only would immediately provide an alternative — they, too, can lead to effective rehabilitation services. The difference is that homeless people there can volunteer to take advantage of them, or decline to do so.
Mr. Sarnoff has been criticized for the wanting to sweep the homeless from view as downtown Miami has become a more dynamic destination for visitors and home to thousands of residents moving into sky-high condominiums. Those critics care passionately for the rights of the homeless. However, it’s a narrow view that fails to recognize the imperative that downtown thrive for the good of all who want and need to be there.
That means visitors not having to navigate panhandlers or people offering to “watch” their parked cars. It means not seeing people relieve themselves — it’s unsightly and a health hazard.
The response to homelessness often is: “How can the city let this happen?” After 20 years it remains a good question. It warrants a firm, collaborative and legally sound response that’s fair to all.