Miami approves settlement that would water down homeless rights

The agreement would take away some of the rights the homeless enjoy under the so-called Pottinger settlement, which was renegotiated with the ACLU.

01/09/2014 8:25 AM

01/09/2014 8:29 PM

A landmark federal settlement that granted Miami's homeless more rights than the general public is a judge's signature away from being watered down for the first time in almost two decades.

Miami commissioners on Thursday voted unanimously to approve a new agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union that will make it easier for police to arrest the city's homeless for what have long been considered life-sustaining activities.

The homeless will no longer be permitted to build fires in parks to cook or to build makeshift tents to sleep in. They can still sleep on sidewalks, but only if they don't block the right of way of pedestrians.

Exposing themselves to go to the bathroom or to clean up would still be allowed, but not if they're within a quarter of a mile of a public restroom. Also, convicted sex offenders who are homeless would no longer receive the same life-sustaining benefits as other homeless people.

The city petitioned the courts for changes to the 16-year old so-called Pottinger settlement last summer, arguing the old rules were antiquated because of a dramatic shift in demographics in downtown Miami the past decade, as the population more than doubled and dozens of restaurants and cultural venues opened. The city and its Downtown Development Authority contend the remaining homeless are a constant bother to restaurant patrons and nearby homeowners.

The ACLU rejected the position, saying even with the demographic changes, nothing has changed for the 500 or so chronic homeless people who remain in Miami, and who for years have fought any help that has been offered.

In December the two sides came to terms after an intense mediation process. Thursday at City Hall commissioners congratulated themselves and the attorneys who helped work out the deal. The ACLU did not attend the meeting.

“We all want to get the same result — safe, secure housing for everyone who is on the street,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who along with Mayor Tomas Regalado pushed the initiative. “It's a socially important issue and an economically important issue.”

Miami's homeless issue first came to light in 1988, when the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Michael Pottinger and several other homeless men who said they were tired of having their rights violated because of repeated arrests for activities such as sleeping, eating, and going to the bathroom. They argued that they were being harassed by police. An agreement was negotiated before U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno a decade later in which the homeless were granted several rights not afforded the average person.

Commissioners also on Thursday unanimously adopted an equally controversial companion piece of legislation that transfers $240,000 — which the city had planned to give the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust — to Camillus House, which shelters homeless people.

The plan is for Camillus House to purchase 100 mats with the money, which would be used for short-time stays for the homeless picked up by police who haven't followed the new terms of the Pottinger agreement. A homeless person can't be arrested for not following Pottinger if there is not a shelter bed available for him or her to spend the night.

Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book, whose agency spends close to $60 million a year feeding, sleeping, and providing services for the homeless, has argued against the city's mat plan for months, claiming it does a disservice to the city's remaining chronic homeless, who require long-term care.

After Thursday’s vote, Book released a statement saying the plan was more of a cosmetic fix than a substantive one.

“The city's decision to use mats to serve the homeless is really a beautification plan, not a proven, time-tested approach to ending homelessness,” he said.

Paul Ahr, president and chief executive of Camillus House, said people using the mats would receive three meals a day, medical attention, and the socialization they need.

“It's a good solution to the problem of homelessness downtown,” Ahr said.

To illustrate his point, Ahr called up Keith Cooper, formerly homeless and addicted to drugs, who said Camilus House put him on the right path. Cooper now helps out at Camillus five days a week.

Right now, “I have my own place. I'm smiling because I'm happy,” Cooper said.

Before the new Pottinger agreement becomes legal, Moreno, the federal judge, must sign off on it. No date has been set.

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