Miami-Dade County

Miami moves to overturn court-ordered homeless rights

Miami escalated its effort to remove the 500 or so chronically homeless people who remain in the city’s business district Wednesday, challenging the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust to spend up to $13 million on hundreds of new beds.

Then city leaders and members of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority made true on a promise to ask a federal court to modify a decades-old ruling that gave the city’s homeless the right to conduct “life-sustaining” acts — such as lighting cooking fires in public parks, sleeping on sidewalks and urinating in public — without getting arrested.

The Wednesday morning announcement just outside the main entrance to Miami-Dade County Hall also gave the city and the DDA the opportunity to show off the group’s newest advocate: County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

While some homeless folks looked on, Gimenez said the effort was about more than just cleaning up the revitalized Biscayne Boulevard and Flagler Street neighborhoods, and eliminating an eyesore for the tourists who flock to the city.

“It’s actually a moral issue,” said the mayor. “Nobody should be sleeping in the streets of Miami.”

But Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book, who has been steadfast in refusing to force the chronically homeless to use overnight shelter beds, on Wednesday rejected the proposal to add more beds.

“These people are not going to drive a truck over and through a community plan to end homelessness,” said Book. “We won’t fund shelter beds. Shelter beds are warehousing. It just allows people to come in at night and shower and sleep, then leave.”

Wednesday’s court filing was the newest chapter in a DDA plan that began in April to remove the 500 homeless people that continue to congregate around downtown Miami.

At the time, city commissioners voted unanimously to petition the courts to alter the landmark settlement in the 1988 Pottinger v. Miami case. In that case, 5,000 homeless people and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city, arguing that the police practice of sweeping them off the streets and dumping their belongings for loitering, sleeping on sidewalks and other minor offenses was unconstitutional.

The case reached a negotiated settlement, or consent decree, in 1998 in which police could no longer arrest homeless people for “involuntary, harmless acts” without first offering them a bed in a shelter. It also led to the creation of the county’s Homeless Trust, which six times has been recognized on a national level as a model for dealing with homelessness. The trust, which in the past decade has been responsible for lowering the homeless population countywide to 800 from about 8,000, spends $55 million a year in housing and services for the homeless.

But the DDA, led by Chairman Marc Sarnoff, who also chairs the city commission, says that current number of 800 chronically homeless is actually double what it was four years ago. The DDA wants the remaining homeless removed from the doorways and sidewalks of downtown, where they say businesses are being hurt, and locals and tourists are being harassed. They say the aggressive panhandling by the homeless is scaring people who live and work downtown and families attending Miami Heat games. The DDA, composed mainly of local business leaders and business owners, fosters economic growth of the downtown business area.

Gimenez, who said he was involved in the original Pottinger settlement as Miami’s fire chief, said it was the right decision back then. But times and demographics have changed.

“It’s time to update the law,” he said.

Wednesday’s filing in federal court cited a number of changes to the downtown corridor that it hopes will sway the court: When the case was settled, about 39,000 people lived in the downtown corridor; now the number is closer to 65,000. It also says downtown Miami is one of the state’s largest employment centers, with about 200,000 people working downtown each day. Also, over 200 new restaurants and stores have opened downtown in the past five years, the motion states.

Book called the city’s latest salvo nothing more than an attempt to get the remaining homeless off the street. He said those who remain chronically homeless refuse to stay permanently in shelters. The trust currently has 5,429 beds for the homeless, 1,496 of them in shelters within the city of Miami.

If the Pottinger settlement is modified as the DDA is asking, it would, for the first time in 15 years, give police authority to arrest the homeless if they refuse a shelter bed. The beds aren’t available now, which is why the city and the DDA are trying to force the trust’s hand into spending the money to purchase 350 new ones. The trust voted in early July to buy 85 additional beds after the city awarded it $260,000.

“What they want to do is sweep people off the street,” Book said. And the only way to arrest them is to have beds available at night. I call it the Sarnoff arrest-and-release plan. All you do is sweep them in and out.”

On Wednesday, the city petitioned the federal court to undo several parts of Pottinger, including those covering public nudity, fires in parks, obstructing sidewalks, littering, and the ability to build a temporary structure in the park.

As it did in 1988, the ACLU of Florida intends to counter any arguments the DDA and its supporters present to try to change the settlement, said Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the ACLU of Florida.

“There are multiple issues with the changes they seek,” she said. “Nothing has changed that would soften the ACLU’s position.”