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Homelessness: Miami’s shadow city

Like many of South Florida’s chronically homeless people, Ronald Poppo spent years living in the shadows, addicted to the bottle and unwilling to seek shelter or reach out to family.

A gruesome and bloody scene last Memorial Day weekend thrust Poppo out of his quiet anonymity. He fell victim to an unfathomable assault on the MacArthur Causeway that left him blind, with most of his face gnawed off.

The world turned its attention to Miami’s “zombie” attack and — for a brief moment — its ongoing struggle with homelessness, an issue for which the city has long served as a model for cities across the country.

But in a move that advocates say could dent the city’s progressive image, Miami commissioners last month voted to ask a federal court to alter the terms of a landmark settlement that bolstered the rights of the city’s homeless.

The 1998 settlement of Pottinger v. Miami bars Miami police from arresting homeless people for “involuntary, harmless” acts without first offering them a bed in a shelter. Such acts include misdemeanors like sleeping on sidewalks, loitering and lighting cooking fires in parks.

The case led to the creation of shelters with thousands of beds throughout South Florida, and the founding of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, which has an annual budget upward of $40 million. Downtown’s homeless population has dropped from about 6,000 before Pottinger.

Now, however, commissioners and the city’s Downtown Development Authority argue that some of the rights afforded to homeless people by the Pottinger case should be eliminated. They say homeless transgressions like panhandling are severe disruptions to Miami’s economic growth.

Although their numbers have shrunk, South Florida’s homeless remain a visible and vulnerable city unto themselves. These men, women and children often are afflicted by a combination of drugs, alcohol, poverty and mental illness.

“Some chronically homeless people have been out here between five and 30 years,” said Ricky Leath, a homeless-outreach worker for the city.

The chronic ones — 835 people in Miami-Dade County, 351 of whom live on Miami’s streets — routinely refuse shelter, usually because of addictions or because they have grown accustomed to being off the grid. Ronald Poppo personified both.

Poppo’s story mirrors those of other chronically homeless people in South Florida: They once had stable lives, careers and spouses, but lost their moorings, migrated south and wound up on the streets.

Local agencies have taken great strides in recent years to address the problem. Groups like the Homeless Assistance Center in Broward County and the Homeless Trust in Miami-Dade take regular, head-by-head counts of the region’s homeless population.

“We count every person from the Everglades to the ocean,” said Homeless Trust Executive Director Hilda Fernandez.

The numbers help the agencies gauge what services are needed from nonprofit partners like Camillus House, the Miami Rescue Mission, Chapman Partnership and others.

While politicians, lawyers and advocates clash, the homeless themselves continue to trudge ahead the best they know how.

For some like Poppo, it could mean a life in the shadows, forever gripped by addiction and loneliness.

Jairo Mesa was the last outreach worker to try to talk Poppo into a shelter two days before last year’s attack. Poppo refused to leave his makeshift space in a parking-garage stairwell at Jungle Island.

“Poppo was an alcoholic,” Mesa said. “Every time I saw him, I offered him shelter, but he couldn’t leave the bottle.”

The luckier ones, like several who talked with The Miami Herald about their lives, find solace in spirituality and safe shelter in places like the Miami Rescue Mission.

Richard “Alabama” Mims, 61

Thanks to his Southern twang, Richard Mims was known on the streets as Alabama, for the home state he left more than three decades ago. The nickname has followed Mims to the Miami Rescue Mission, where he has been for about a year.

“I just hitchhiked to Florida; I wanted to come to Miami because there’s a lot of dope here,” Mims said. “The game is the same anywhere, but here the weather is nice. There’s more space to get high because you can stay outside.”

Mims said he was good at setting up crack houses, selling stolen goods and persuading women to sell their bodies. He was in and out of prison for most of his adult life — 18 months in, a year or so out — for guns, drugs and other charges.

He has a tattoo honoring his deceased parents on his left arm. On his right arm, a tattoo for his estranged daughter and track marks from heroin needles.

He said he’s been clean more than 2 ½ years, save for one relapse that, he said, made him feel “nasty, dirty.”

He said his calling now is to share his story with people on the street who are still fighting the demons he has only recently shaken off. He is doing just that as part of a Miami Rescue Mission program in Hollywood.

“I tell people what it was that led me down the road of destruction,” Mims said. “I tell them, ‘You don’t have to get to 60 years old, if you get that long, to realize you’re a lonely old man like I am.’ ”

Tyrone Odom, 44

When his life in New Jersey started to fall apart, Tyrone Odom bought a train ticket as far as he could go: Miami.

It wasn’t always bad, despite an unhappy childhood with a stepfather who spent more time in bars than at home. Odom managed to build a career as an electrical engineer with Sears. He married and had five children.

But then he tried and failed to start his own company. His wife had an affair with her pastor. Odom got shot outside his home in an attempted robbery. His longtime friends turned to gangs. He went to prison, for having an unregistered gun, when he was pondering whether to kill the pastor.

After Odom’s train ride to South Florida, his remaining money didn’t last long. He slept on the streets for five months, waiting to get into a shelter. Another homeless man pointed him to hiding places and showed him where to find food that had just been thrown out.

One night, over a cheap meal from Pollo Tropical, he prayed for the first time.

“I’m not a bad guy, and I’m not used to that situation,” Odom said. “I prayed, ‘God, please keep me safe.’ ”

At Miami Rescue Mission, Odom discovered a talent for teaching, sharing Bible passages with others. He is about to graduate from an education and training program, and he works as a staff assistant the Rescue Mission’s outreach office.

“Here I am, still alive, down in Miami.”

Tynisha McMillan, 22

With her infant cradled in her arms, Tynisha McMillan talked about addiction. Drugs and alcohol had been a problem since she was 14. The bad relationships came later.

She spent the first eight years of her life in the happy care of her grandmother. When Grandma died, McMillan had to move in with her mother, whom she described as a drug-addicted alcoholic.

“Anything could trigger me to violence,” McMillan said. Her penchant for fighting got her expelled from Miami Northwestern High School in her sophomore year.

She began dating an older guy enrolled at Everest Institute, a career-training school. She got pregnant. He left.

“It hurt to be left being a single parent at age 18 with no one to help you,” McMillan said.

She bounced around friends’ and relatives’ houses until she hooked up with a guy who didn’t seem to mind that she had a baby.

Soon after the new boyfriend got McMillan pregnant, he left, too. She then learned that the father of her first child had been killed in a motorcycle crash.

Depressed, still using drugs and without a home, McMillan applied for a spot at a shelter. Miami Rescue Mission took her in two weeks before her second baby was born.

Now she is with women who understand what she has been through, and what she is going through. Her 2-year-old daughter has playmates, and McMillan is taking classes at Miami-Dade College. She recently moved out of the Rescue Mission and into her own apartment.

“It took for me to get in a troubled situation to get back to my faith and my values,” McMillan said. “The No. 1 thing is to have faith. Without faith, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

Valerie Stanley, 25

The handle of Valerie Stanley’s overstuffed red suitcase broke, and its wheels stopped working. Her 5- and 6-year-old kids were in tow, and her 2-year-old son demanded to be carried. Still, Stanley managed a smile.

“In my head, I’m like, ‘I’m homeless,’ but I’m still joyous,” Stanley said. “I’ve been on this spiritual journey, and I realize I just have to have this positive outlook. There’s always a positive inside a negative.”

Stanley was six months pregnant when she graduated from high school. After their second child, Stanley and her boyfriend moved to Tampa. Stanley lost her job at a local Boys and Girls Club, then caught her boyfriend cheating on her.

“That was the lowest point in my life,” she said. “But I kept telling myself, ‘When I fall, I gotta pick myself up for my kids. They’re all I have.’ ”

Stanley returned to South Florida for a visit and wound up getting pregnant again. One night back in Tampa, an argument with her old high school boyfriend turned violent. Stanley, eight months pregnant, was admitted to a hospital. She checked into a domestic-violence shelter, acknowledging for the first time that she was homeless and needed help.

“My kids were lying in that bunk bed with me, and I looked up and felt this relief, this liberation. I felt free,” Stanley said.

She moved back to Miami with her kids and stayed with her grandmother until Miami Rescue Mission called to say she had been approved for a spot.

“Lord, you’re always on time,” Stanley said.

She hopes to one day open a dance studio for at-risk youths.

Thomas Randolph, 23

When Thomas Randolph was 9, hanging out on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, he got scooped up in the Crips street gang.

At first, he said, the heavily armed and violent group felt like family, providing a level of protection and care that his heroin-addicted mother could not. But he soon realized he was in over his head. “They told me once I was in, I couldn’t get out,” Randolph said.

Randolph had been expelled from elementary school for bringing a knife to class. With his mother deemed unfit to care for him, Randolph lived in group homes that were “like prison,” he said.

After another run-in with the law when he was 14, Randolph was ordered by a judge to move in with his stepsister and her boyfriend, who lived in Florida.

Randolph and a friend began robbing fast-food joints and drug dealers. When they got caught, Randolph shot at police officers.

At age 15, he was locked up in maximum-security, where gangs ruled.

“I was stabbed in the head and the left thigh,” Randolph said, pointing to a scar visible under his short hair. “Because I was white, I was supposed to join the Aryan Nation. But when the guards found out I was a Crip, they put me in the cell block near [other Crips]. The Aryan Nation was like, ‘Why don’t you like your own kind?’ ”

In the years he grew up in prison, Randolph earned a GED, studied culinary arts and took part in three prison riots.

After his release in November, he graduated from the Chapman Partnership Homeless Assistance Center, has a job and no longer lives in subsided housing.

Maricela Castillo, 45

With a baby boy suffering from a serious heart condition and a teenage son to support, the only thing that stood between Maricela Castillo and homelessness was the kindness of a landlord. He let her stay rent-free for a year in Kentucky as Castillo nursed little Marlon back to health and struggled to pay the bills for her and her older son, Rigoberto.

But at the end of that year, she had no place to go. Castillo and Marlon moved to Miami to live with a friend, while Rigoberto stayed behind in Kentucky. The friend eventually split town, and mother and baby spent a few terrifying nights on the streets before she found a shelter.

“I couldn’t sleep at all,” she said. “I was so worried for my son.”

In the past three years, Castillo and Marlon have stayed in three shelters and a rent-subsidized apartment. Now, Castillo has a modest, one-bedroom apartment in the Villa Aurora building of Carrfour Supportive Housing, an affordable-care community.

She has a view of the Marlins ballpark, a home filled with donated furniture and the assistance of therapists who help Marlon with speech and other developmental skills. Rigoberto has since followed Castillo to Miami, but he, too, is struggling with homelessness.

“He can’t stay here because this apartment is only approved for me and my younger son,” Castillo said. “He can come here to bathe and eat, but if they find out he’s staying, they’ll kick us out.”

Castillo said she has had to make hard decisions about how to allocate her meager resources.

“The other [son] is a man. He can take care of himself,” she said. “I want him to get into a program like we have, but Marlon is the one who needs me right now.”

Miami Herald staff writers Elinor J. Brecher and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.