Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

A winning compromise


OUR OPINION: Modifying Pottinger rule good for the homeless and for downtown

Both Miami leaders and ACLU officials can claim victory with their proposed compromise on how chronically homeless people are treated in the city. Fifteen years after a landmark federal court ruling that prevented the city from criminalizing homelessness and gave homeless people certain “life-sustaining” privileges, officials have negotiated an accord that still protects the homeless but gives the city more leeway in dealing with them.

The agreement’s fate is up to U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who should allow this modification of the original ruling, known as the Pottinger decision. Pottinger stemmed from a court case in which three homeless men filed suit, complaining that Miami police wrongly arrested them and confiscated their property. The federal court ruling gave homeless individuals some protected privileges in public places, such as sleeping, lighting camp fires and being nude when cleaning themselves without fear of police harassment.

But much has changed in Miami since the 1998 ruling. The homeless population was around 8,000 then. Today, the chronic homeless in the downtown area number about 800 individuals. The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust now spends more than $52 million a year on housing and services for the homeless. Camillus House, a homeless shelter and long-time downtown fixture, has moved to a new campus close to the Jackson Health System complex and has added services to help people down on their luck rehabilitate.

And downtown itself has been transformed, with new high-rises luring 70,000 residents to the area. New restaurants and other amenities are thriving in Miami's Central Business District, and proposed development would add more high-end retail attractions.

Under the proposed agreement, homeless people would no longer be allowed to set fires to cook or to build makeshift tents to sleep in public parks.

They would still be allowed to sleep on sidewalks, but only if they don't obstruct pedestrians’ right-of-way. They would still be allowed to be naked in public to cleanse themselves or go to the bathroom, but only out of sight of the general public, and not if they are within a quarter mile of a public restroom. Also, littering would be illegal if a litterer is within 300 feet of a trash receptacle. Police still could not seize homeless individuals’ property without due process.

Left unaddressed was a city request that the police be able to detain the chronically homeless if they refuse help three times in 180 days. This issue might become moot with the Homeless Trust’s new strategy for dealing with the chronically homeless. This includes getting to know individuals better, providing them homes and tracking their progress. The Trust’s “100,000 Homes” effort will coordinate with a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development campaign to end chronic homelessness by 2015.

As for the city, its planners see modifying Pottinger as part of a bigger plan to reenergize the downtown district, making it more pedestrian friendly and attractive overall. If Judge Moreno approves the agreement, the City Commission must then vote on it, and approval is expected. Wisely, the proposed agreement would put a two-year moratorium on the city modifying Pottinger further, but allows the city to revisit Pottinger in 2016 if the homeless issue remains unresolved. This proposed accord works in favor of all the stakeholders’ interests.

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