Miami-Dade County

Miami commission defers vote on controversial 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

A polarizing law aimed at the homeless won’t go into effect just yet in Miami. And if it ever does get approved, it might be a shadow of the proposal that spurred allegations that city lawmakers want to outlaw extreme poverty.

After three hours of testy exchanges and legal threats, Miami commissioners delayed a vote that would have created criminal penalties for anyone who sets up tents, tarps or cots on public land and refuses an order by the police to move. The law — debated after city staffers erected a tent in the commission chambers — would have also allowed police to confiscate those prohibited items if they were left unattended.

Instead, legislation proposed by downtown area Commissioner Marc Sarnoff will be delayed for a month and likely further watered down.

Sarnoff says the law would make downtown safer and give police more leeway to steer the homeless into a city-sponsored program at the Camillus House shelter in Overtown. He initially suggested in January that the city outlaw even pillows, blankets and sleeping bags on the sidewalk, but softened the language after it drew sharp criticism.

He indicated Thursday that he might remove all prohibited items from the legislation save tents and shelters.

“We’re not arresting our way out of homelessness nor are we trying to,” Sarnoff said, adding: “All I’m asking is that it be a lawful order that the police officers can exercise to say no tents or makeshift shelters. That’s the intent behind it.”

The decision was no doubt dissatisfying to the downtown residents and business owners who encouraged commissioners to approve the law and dismissed critics as outsiders oblivious to Miami’s problems. Resident Maria Elena Pinto told commissioners an angry panhandler once followed her and her husband onto the Metromover, threw hot coffee in her spouse’s face and then attacked him when they had no money to give.

“Get out of your cars and walk through downtown. See the crime. And see how you will be attacked,” she said.

But an avalanche of critics said the city was taking steps backward to the days when police officers enforced anti-homeless laws that the courts ruled were unconstitutional. In 1998, after a decade of litigation, the city settled with the ACLU and created a pact called the Pottinger Agreement that has protected homeless from being arrested in Miami for “life-sustaining” acts like public urination.

“This legislation denigrates our community in the eyes of housing officials, homeless advocates, and all those in the community who advocated for the least, the lost, the last and the forgotten,” said Vicki Mallette, executive director of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust.

Commissioners ultimately directed city attorneys to meet with ACLU lawyers, who have threatened to sue the city if it passes Sarnoff’s legislation. Commissioners also ordered meetings with the Homeless Trust, saying the city is spending money to increase shelter space while the county’s publicly funded leader for homeless care sits on millions of dollars.

Mallette called that argument an “erroneous misconception.” And while she acknowledged that Sarnoff softened his law, she encouraged him to reconsider it altogether.

“I don’t believe we’ve gone far enough,” she said.

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