Miami-Dade County

Miami commissioner to tweak homeless ‘camping’ law

Miami Police officer James Bernat, the department’s Homeless Coordinator, asks a homeless man in downtown Miami on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, if he would like to move to a shelter as Miami’s police outreach team works with the homeless by offering shelter in the Mat Program.
Miami Police officer James Bernat, the department’s Homeless Coordinator, asks a homeless man in downtown Miami on Tuesday, February 17, 2015, if he would like to move to a shelter as Miami’s police outreach team works with the homeless by offering shelter in the Mat Program. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Responding to criticism, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff announced Monday that he is softening “camping” legislation that critics have warned would outlaw homelessness in the city.

Last month, Sarnoff introduced an ordinance that would allow police to issue warnings to anyone who erects a tent or temporary domicile on public land. Anyone who ignores a warning from an officer could be arrested.

The law, according to Sarnoff and police, was crafted to address a sudden spike in the appearance of tents around downtown Miami, where most of the county’s homeless congregate. But homeless advocates seized on language that would have also prohibited the placement of pillows, blankets and sleeping bags on the sidewalk, and argued that Sarnoff wanted to criminalize extreme poverty.

On Monday, Miami’s communications office issued a press release, noting that Sarnoff wants to remove bedrolls, bedding, blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags from the list of prohibited items in the ordinance. Sarnoff said he’d call to strip the items from the legislation when it goes before commissioners March 12 for a final hearing.

“I have listened carefully to the concerns of experts on homelessness and others within our community and I believe this modification is a worthy compromise,” Sarnoff said in a statement. “My biggest concern has and always will be the blocking of the public right-of-way by these tents and makeshift shelters. No family with a baby stroller should be forced into the street because it is partially impassable due to tents or makeshift shelters.”

Miami’s handling of its homeless population has been under the microscope since the late 1980s, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of the city‘s homeless population. The lawsuit, which alleged that the city systematically moved to push the homeless from the city, resulted in a settlement now known as the Pottinger Agreement. Pottinger lays out certain rights for homeless in Miami’s downtown to engage in “life-sustaining activities” that would otherwise be illegal, such as bathing in public.

That consent decree, which has been hailed as a gold standard for homeless rights around the country, was watered down about a year ago after the city and the ACLU renegotiated the agreement in part to allow police to refer the homeless to an outdoor mat program at the Camillus House shelter.

Benjamin Waxman, the attorney who negotiated the Pottinger Agreement in 1998 and again in 2013, said he was pleased that Sarnoff is pulling back on the legislation. But he said it still goes too far, and that the ACLU will continue to oppose the legislation.

“It’s very nice that Sarnoff recognized the problems with criminalizing using a blanket and pillow in public,” said Waxman. “But really the ordinance clearly targets homeless people and makes it a crime to be homeless in Miami, which directly contradicts the consent decree.”

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