When Miami Beach police officer Ysidro Llamoca encountered Jamie McNeil — shirtless, shoeless, unshaven and scruffy — the beach dweller was preparing to sleep again on the sand dunes of Lummus Park.
Instead of hassling the homeless man, Llamoca offered to help. Fifteen minutes later, McNeil, 34, was in a white van operated by the city’s homeless outreach team, headed for shelter at the Homeless Assistance Center in Miami.
The treatment last week was a far cry from the claim that Miami Beach officers ferry their homeless people across the MacArthur Causeway and deposit them on downtown Miami streets. That assertion has been repeated by Miami Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff as part of his recent quest to banish homeless people from the struggling downtown business district.
“We’ve caught Miami Beach dumping people in the city [of Miami],” Sarnoff recently told the Miami Herald, accusing Aventura, Surfside and Coral Gables police of the same practice. “Downtown Miami has become the dumping ground for Miami-Dade’s homeless.”
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But the cities he cited deny the claim. And while advocates for the homeless have long heard rumors about the practice, they say there is no evidence to support it.
“I’ve never seen it or received any actual reports of it happening,” said Hilda Fernandez, executive director of the county’s Homeless Trust.
The more likely reason that so many homeless people congregate in Miami, Fernandez said, is that Jackson Memorial Hospital, the county courthouse and several crisis intervention centers are all located downtown. Downtown Miami also has a Greyhound station. The modestly priced bus service draws homeless people traveling to and from Miami.
The Homeless Trust is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss, among other things, a proposal to fund more shelter beds in downtown and to finalize its budget.
Claims of homeless dumping aren’t new. In arguing the need to ban street feedings in 2004, former city manager Joe Arriola complained that Miami had long been a dumping ground for the region’s homeless.
The debate found new life in April, when the city commission decided to petition a judge for changes to a landmark 1998 legal settlement known as Pottinger v. Miami. The agreement prohibits Miami police for arresting homeless people for minor offenses without first offering them a bed in homeless shelter.
Sarnoff, who also chairs the Downtown Development Authority, argues that the strict parameters of Pottinger have prevented city leaders from removing the 500 or so homeless people from Miami’s streets. Most local shelters are at capacity, meaning police can do little to punish the homeless who urinate in the street or light cooking fires in public parks.
Sarnoff pointed out that other municipalities aren’t subject to the same rules, and said they sometimes resort to escorting their homeless residents to Miami. That claim, he said, is based on anecdotes he has head from Miami police officers and several of his downtown constituents.
Miami Police spokesman Napier Velazquez said the department has “no documentation” of other municipalities releasing homeless people on the streets of Miami. The anecdotes, however, include a first-person account from attorney Jay Solowsky, who said he saw a Coral Gables police officer drop off a homeless person near 150 W. Flagler St. late one night in 2009.
“I observed a Coral Gables police car letting out a person who was very clearly homeless,” said Solowsky, who works in Sarnoff’s law firm and serves as a pro bono attorney for the DDA. “I’ve seen similar situations, but I didn’t take note of which municipality was involved.”
Coral Gables police, however, deny the claim.
“It’s neither our policy nor our practice to relocate homeless people to other jurisdictions,” said Officer Dean Wellinghoff, a department spokesman. “Typically, we’ll get calls regarding a homeless person blocking the entrance to a business. We’ll just ask that person to move on.”
Aventura Police spokesman Sgt. Chris Goranitis denied similar allegations directed at his department.
“This is completely false and not practical,” Goranitis told the Miami Herald. “There would be absolutely no reason to travel several miles to the city of Miami when there is a homeless shelter minutes from our city located at 1203 N. Federal Hwy. in Hollywood.”
Both departments, as well as the Surfside Police Department, say they have a relatively small homeless population. Outside of Miami city limits, only 124 people live on the streets north of Kendall Drive, according to the latest census from the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust. Another 66 live south of Kendall Drive.
The second largest concentration of unsheltered homeless people is on Miami Beach: 138 as of the Homeless Trust’s January count.
Beach police spokesman Sgt. Bobby Hernandez said his department may have brought people across the causeway to Miami two decades ago, but doesn’t do that now. The department follows the same rules that Miami does, he said, even though there is no court order requiring the Beach to give wide berth to homeless people. And an officer is on the city’s homeless outreach team, along with several social services professionals.
“We are not dumping anyone in downtown Miami,” Hernandez said. “That’s just not true. What we have done is designate an officer to locate, identify and assist every single homeless person that we have in Miami Beach.”
Last week, Llamoca found a woman named Jennifer sprawled out on a green bath towel by the corner of 10th Street and Ocean Drive. Jennifer refused to go to a shelter that night, saying she preferred to sleep outdoors. But she promised to visit the homeless outreach team office the next morning.
Llamoca knelt on the ground and looked Jennifer in the eye. “I’m not going to give up on you,” he said.
Two blocks north, Llamoca struck up a conversation with Shawn Patrick Collins.
Collins, who has been homeless “on and off” for 15 years, said Hollywood officers had once dropped him off at the county line instead of arresting him. But he had never heard of Miami Beach police doing anything like that, he said.
Some police departments like Miami Beach do bring people to homeless shelters in Miami city limits. Beach police officers brought 20 people to Camillus House in 2011, according to data collected by the shelter. The Aventura, Miami Shores and Hialeah police departments brought four, six and 15 people, respectively.
Fernandez, the executive director of the Homeless Trust, said homeless people also wind up downtown because of the indigent healthcare services offered at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
What’s more, Miami-Dade corrections officials used to release all inmates from the downtown jail at 1321 NW 13th St. As of last month, however, most releases are being done at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, 7000 NW 41st St.
County leaders have spent several years working to combat what they call “institutional homelessness.” In 2008, a dozen healthcare, corrections and social service agencies signed an agreement with the Homeless Trust to help the homeless being discharged from their facilities. That agreement will likely be renewed this year.
“We don’t want institutions creating homelessness,” Fernandez said.
But Sarnoff says that isn’t enough, and is pushing for dramatic changes, including revisions to the Pottinger agreement. He would like to give Miami police the power to arrest homeless people for some minor offenses, including possibly for repeatedly refusing help.
Those changes, Sarnoff hopes, would discourage both the alleged dumping by other departments and institutional homelessness.
“We’re on a hamster wheel,” he said. “At some point, the streets [of Miami] can no longer be an option.”