Miami-Dade County

Amid downtown Miami boom, advocates say proposed law hurts homeless

Miami Police officer Gregg Vassari asks a homeless woman in downtown Miami on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, if she would like to move to a shelter as Miami’s police outreach team works with the homeless by offering shelter in the Mat Program. If a proposed new law is approved next month it would essentially outlaw homelessness by banning people from sleeping on public property with pillows, blankets and other everyday items.
Miami Police officer Gregg Vassari asks a homeless woman in downtown Miami on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, if she would like to move to a shelter as Miami’s police outreach team works with the homeless by offering shelter in the Mat Program. If a proposed new law is approved next month it would essentially outlaw homelessness by banning people from sleeping on public property with pillows, blankets and other everyday items. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Jennifer Watkins hugs a blue pillow, sits up from a pile of blankets on the sidewalk and sheds a tattooed tear from her left eye.

She’s no angel. But Miami wasn’t supposed to be purgatory.

Watkins says she left Daytona Beach for a better life in the Magic City five years ago when she was 36 and her mother died of a drug overdose. But she ended up on the streets. Now she turns tricks for money and sleeps along Miami Avenue next to her boyfriend.

“This is not something that we choose,” said Watkins. “This is not something that we enjoy doing.”

Watkins is one of more than 600 men and women who spend their nights on sidewalks and in the nooks of buildings in and around downtown Miami, where a feverish development boom is transforming the last overgrown lots into condos and shops, and placing the homeless under a spotlight.

Since Watkins moved to town, cranes have returned to the sky and officials have passed or proposed a series of laws aimed at curbing activities associated with the homeless. Police, business boosters and downtown area commissioner Marc Sarnoff say the efforts are intended to improve the lives of the chronic homeless, while also benefitting downtown.

But more than 20 years after the city was slammed for systematically pushing the poor off its streets, it looks like Miami, say advocates, is slipping back into its old ways. The latest sign — following the weakening of a historic compact protecting homeless rights — is a proposed law that would ban even pillows and blankets on the sidewalk.

“What they’re essentially doing is criminalizing the status of being homeless,” said Benjamin Waxman, an attorney who has tangled with the city for years on homeless issues.

On Feb. 12, Miami commissioners tentatively approved a “camping prohibition” that would ban tents on public property, such as the sidewalk, as well as “camping paraphernelia” such as sleeping bags and bedding. If the law passes next month, police will be able to tell offenders to pick up their things and move or face a $500 fine, jail time or hard labor on the streets. If cops come upon unattended possessions, they can confiscate them.

The legislation has created alarm among advocacy groups and the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, the county’s tax-funded coordinator of homeless services (referred to in government jargon as the continuum of care). After reading the proposed law, Trust Chairman Ron Book called it “the next move in the act of criminalizing the homeless.”

But Miami officials say that’s not the case at all. Officer James Bernat, the police department’s homeless coordinator, told commissioners that the poor are increasingly setting up tents in public lots and on sidewalks, creating a situation where no one knows who or what is inside.

Sarnoff, who proposed the camping prohibition and pushed restrictions on panhandling and homeless feedings in recent years, said safety is only half the story: “The purpose behind this legislative change is to give police another bow in the quiver to try to get [the homeless] into the continuum of care.”

In the city of Miami, that means referring people on the streets to Camillus House, where shelter beds are at such a premium that homeless are now being asked to sleep outside on mats beneath a souped-up pavilion. To make the program legal, Sarnoff and the city went through tense negotiations with the ACLU and Waxman in 2013 to reduce protections afforded the homeless in a historic 1998 settlement called the Pottinger Agreement. The agreement, forced by a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 homeless, allowed the destitute to engage in “life-sustaining activities” such as urinating, bathing and lying down in public. But under the agreement, if they’re caught, police can offer them a choice: shelter or jail.

Changes to Pottinger also drew alarm from advocates, but Sarnoff says concerns that the city would round up the homeless and throw them in jail have been unfounded. He said police have not arrested a single homeless person under the amended Pottinger Agreement.

Police frequently interact with the homeless, as do business owners and pedestrians, to varying degrees of frustration.

“We clean urine and feces probably three to four times a week from the sidewalks in front of my building,” says Jose Goyanes, who owns a barber shop and cosmetics store across the street from Macy’s, a popular spot for the homeless. “It has a direct, negative impact on business.”

On a recent Tuesday evening, Bernat and several officers visited that pungent stretch along Southwest First Avenue across from Goyanes’ shops. In English and in Spanish, they went along a row of men and women lying on the sidewalk on cardboard and on blankets, asking if anyone wanted to give up the concrete for a mat at Camillus House.

Kevin Key did. The first time the lanky 51-year-old visited Camillus House, he left after just one hour. But he said he had been in Miami two weeks since leaving Atlanta on a Greyhound bus. “This is getting kind of hard. It’s time to go,” he said as he rolled up an egg-foam mat.

Within 45 minutes, six homeless violating Miami’s laws prohibiting obstruction of the sidewalk agreed to go to Camillus House to sleep on a mat. No one who refused shelter was arrested, although Bernat said police could have done so under the amended Pottinger Agreement. “Pottinger says I can arrest. It doesn’t say I have to,” he said.

Some homeless say Miami’s police do harass them and take their belongings for little reason. After spending several days in Miami last month, Thomas Rebman, a teacher now living on the streets to document Florida’s treatment of the poor, said he heard so many similar stories about police harassment that it was hard not to believe them.

But Bernat said Miami police are trained to rehabilitate the homeless, not throw them in jail at taxpayers’ expense. He said the camping legislation was made broad to allow police to handle all situations.

So far, Bernat says nearly 1,000 homeless have been referred to Camillus House’s mat program, which typically gives the homeless 30 days of shelter provided they’re back by 10 p.m. and don’t cross the lines with the staff and others in the program. Among the few conditions is that they slowly begin rehabilitation, with the end-game being getting a job and a home.

He said one-third move into a shelter, or back with their families. Still, despite its popularity with downtown businessmen, Camillus House’s mat program has been criticized for enabling the homeless and warehousing vagrants.

Since the Pottinger Agreement was signed in 1998, Miami-Dade has actually halved its homeless population to about 4,000. Some 616 were counted on Miami’s streets in January. But the overall population downtown has more than doubled to 80,000. That growth is one of the key reasons cited in 2013 for the amendments to the Pottinger Agreement. City officials and Miami’s semi-autonomous tax-funded Downtown Development Authority argue that the homeless are stunting growth.

On the same day Miami commissioners gave a tentative nod to the camping prohibition, they also cast the first of two votes to approve the Miami Worldcenter, a 27-acre complex of residential towers and shops being built on land sometimes referred to as “tent city” because of its frequent use by the homeless.

“They’ve got to look for a long-term solution for people like us,” said Watkins, who sleeps beneath a city sign announcing an upcoming vote on the project.

A few blocks away on Sixth Street, where Luis Lopez sleeps under umbrellas beneath the Metrorail, All Aboard Florida is building the mammoth transit hub MiamiCentral. In order to connect passenger trains to downtown at the station, the parent company of Tri-Rail is currently seeking subsidies from a tax-funded redevelopment agency that, while subsidizing projects such as Worldcenter, has been criticized for not doing enough to help the poor and develop affordable housing.

“They tell you to go to jail or go to the shelter. It’s not a choice,” says Lopez, who says he makes his money as an intermediary connecting drug dealers with buyers.

Lopez, who says he is HIV positive, doesn’t like being homeless. But he says he doesn’t like shelters either. Watkins, who told the Herald she receives $700 a month from Social Security, said she was kicked out of Camillus House due to a confrontation with a staffer and told not to come back until April.

It’s a constant issue in dealing with homelessness anywhere — getting them into shelters and convincing them to stay. It’s almost as difficult as finding the money to create space.

In Miami, where the number of people on the streets rose slightly this year, the homeless outunumber available shelter beds. But the Homeless Trust believes that housing is the key to ending homelessness, and has argued that the Camillus House mat program enables homeless behavior in the same way that feeding the homeless or giving money to panhandlers helps them stay on the streets.

Book, the Trust chairman, said modifying the Pottinger Agreement last year was just a step in Miami turning its homeless into criminals.

“I can’t tell you I’m terribly surprised at this move,” Book said of the camping law, which has been passed in different variations around the country.

Tristia Bauman, a former Miami-Dade public defender now working as a senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, called the legislation “counter-productive.” She said Miami needs to focus instead on better social services and creating more affordable housing and brick-and-mortar shelters.

“The claim that the criminal law wouldn’t result in arrests ... is just not credible,” she said. “A criminal law exists so that it can be enforced. This is the absolute wrong strategy for city to employ.”

Sarnoff says the city is looking out for the homeless, and looking out for itself as well. “I’m proud of the way we’re conducting ourselves,” he said. “For some people it’s not fast enough.”

Camping prohibition ordinance

The Miami City Commission is expected to take a second and final vote March 12 on a proposed camping prohibition ordinance. Here’s some of the text of the ordinance, which defines camping parephernelia as “bedrolls, tarpaulins, cots, bedding, blankets, mattresses, pillows, sleeping bags, hammocks, cooking facilities and similar equipment.”

  • It is unlawful and a public nuisance for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities, or use camp paraphernalia upon any public property, unless specifically authorized by this code. The person shall not be charged with a violation of the section if, after being warned by a law enforcement officer, the person immediately removes or causes to be removed all camp paraphernalia from any camp facility.
  • It is unlawful and a public nuisance for any person to establish or maintain camp facilities or to store camp paraphernalia upon any public property, unless specifically authorized by this code
  • Penalties: Any person violating the provisions of any section of this Code or any other ordinance, where no other penalty is prescribed, shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $500.00, or be imprisoned at hard labor on the streets or other works of the city for not more than 60 days, or shall be both fined and imprisoned.
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