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Proposals reignite debate over downtown’s homeless population

A political battle is mounting over the chronically homeless in downtown Miami.

In one corner: the Miami City Commission, led by Chairman Marc Sarnoff, and the semi-autonomous Downtown Development Authority. They argue that a 15-year-old legal ruling known as Pottinger v. Miami is preventing city leaders from addressing chronic homelessness — and are petitioning a federal judge for changes to the landmark settlement.

But they face opposition from powerhouse lobbyist Ron Book, who chairs the county’s Homeless Trust. Book fears the proposed changes would result in warehousing of some of the city’s homeless.

“That won’t happen while I’m chairman,” Book said. “They’ll have to cart me out.”

The pressure is on.

Last week, Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez wrote Book offering to pay for 15 new beds in Miami homeless shelters, but only if the Homeless Trust agrees to fund another 85. “These beds will ensure, without a doubt, immediate relief for the homeless on our streets,” Martinez wrote.

Book is holding firm that shelter beds are not the answer.

“It’s like, all of a sudden, somebody decided we’ve got this resurgence of homelessness downtown, and we’ve got to sweep these people into a building at night,” Book said. “That’s not productive. I can’t let political expediency change what we do.”

The Pottinger case, settled by consent decree in 1997, prevents Miami police from arresting homeless people for “life-sustaining” activities, such as sleeping on the street, without first offering them available shelter. The settlement led to a significant expansion of public services for the homeless.

Still, 351 homeless people live in downtown Miami, according to March report from the DDA.

On any given day, downtown is spotted with street dwellers. Many congregate around County Hall and the civil courthouse. Others sleep on the sidewalks in the business district.

It doesn’t bother Eddi Quintana, who owns Joelo’s Dollar Store on North Miami Avenue.

“They keep to themselves mostly,” he said.

But Avi Smykyan, a downtown business owner for 18 years, said he regularly loses customers when homeless people wander over to his Perfume Express kiosk in the Flagler Station business park, 48 E. Flagler St.

“When a homeless person comes and I have a customer, the customer doesn’t feel secure,” Smykyan said. “It hurts business. That’s why you see so many empty stores around here.”

Sarnoff says other business owners have complained, and that some of the “life-sustaining” activities allowed under Pottinger pose a threat to public safety.

“You should not be allowed to have a fire in a park,” he said. “You should not be allowed to be nude. You should not be allowed to loiter in a restroom.”

A new solution is needed, he said, to address those who are chronically homeless and likely to refuse help.

Sarnoff, the City Commission and the DDA are pursuing a two-pronged solution.

First, they are petitioning the judge 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 actions would become potentially arrestable offenses.

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. The details of that proposal are still unclear, however, and have prompted concerns that the practice could be too far-reaching and violate the rights of the homeless.

Any of the proposed changes would need the approval of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Michael Pottinger and several other homeless people in the original lawsuit. ACLU attorneys have been meeting with city attorneys, but have said they doubt they will easily find consensus.

Additionally, Sarnoff is pushing for 100 new shelter beds within the Miami city limits. City officials are willing to contribute at least $164,000, or about 15 percent of the annual cost. They are asking the Homeless Trust to fund the remainder from its $52 million budget.

Sarnoff has taken some heat from critics, who believe his crusade is primarily motivated by a desire to improve downtown Miami’s image among tourists and consumers. Sarnoff doesn’t hide the fact that he supports downtown development. But he says this campaign is about more than the business owners.

“There are mentally unstable people on the streets who will get no care unless we do something,” he said.

Some homeless advocates are on board with the proposed strategy.

Paul Ahr, president and chief executive officer of Camillus House, called more overnight housing “a good idea.”

“It stops, at least temporarily, the cycle of homelessness for those people who are on the street,” Ahr said. “We know that if there is the right mix of programs and overnight shelter, we can significantly reduce the number of street homeless people in Miami.”

But Book, the chair of the Homeless Trust, isn’t convinced. Forcing the chronically homeless to sleep in shelters, he said, is nothing more than warehousing them.

“Warehousing people is not a way to end homelessness,” he added. “Shackling people to a bed every day doesn’t get you anywhere.” Book prefers a longer-term approach that involves providing intensive mental health and social services for the chronically homeless. He would also like to see more money invested in transitional housing, he said.

“I know I’m not getting them all off the street overnight,” Book said. “It’s harder, more expensive and it takes more time.”

People on both sides of the debate acknowledge that there will never be a homeless-free zone downtown. With its dense population, restaurants and access to inexpensive public transportation, it’s too attractive a place.

And there will always be people like Aphrosodia Kanawakee.

Kanawakee, 61, has been homeless for more than two years. She sometimes sleeps in a shelter, she said, but her preference is to bed down on Northwest First Avenue.

“Everybody is not meant for shelters,” Kanawakee said, rolling a marijuana joint between her weathered fingers. “Some people are meant for the street.”