Miami-Dade County

Miami’s homeless could lose some rights if judge agrees with settlement

Miami’s homeless, who since 1998 have benefitted from special life-sustaining privileges not afforded most residents, will lose some of those exceptions if a federal judge signs off on an agreement reached by the city of Miami and the American Civil Liberties Union.

No longer will the homeless be allowed to set fires in parks to cook, or to build make-shift tents to sleep on public property.

The homeless would still be allowed to sleep on sidewalks, but only if they don’t obstruct the right-of-way of pedestrians. They would still be permitted to be naked in public to cleanse themselves or go to the bathroom, but only out of sight of the general public, and not if they are within a quarter mile of a public restroom.

And convicted, homeless sex offenders would no longer receive the same life-sustaining benefits as other homeless people.

The agreement, reached late Wednesday after two days of intense shuttle-door diplomacy, was delivered Thursday afternoon to U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno. The judge can accept it, reject it, or order more negotiations between the two sides.

Even if Moreno accepts the settlement, it would not go into effect for at least a month because it must first be approved by Miami commissioners.

The agreement reached between the city and the ACLU effectively ends a months-long dispute over the landmark federal case, originally filed more than two decades ago by three homeless men who complained of Miami police sweeping them off the street, arresting them and confiscating their property.

In September the city, citing changed demographics and the drop in homelessness numbers, petitioned the court to update the 1998 settlement. The ACLU fought the move, and Moreno ordered the sides to mediation.

“This will allow the city to grow like other cities that don’t have Pottinger,” said Miami Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff, who also directs the city’s Downtown Development Authority, which fought for the changes.

Benjamin Waxman, an attorney who worked with the ACLU and negotiated the original 1998 settlement, said the recent agreement should give the city the ability to eliminate chronic homelessness.

The agreement “prevents a return to the failed policy of criminalizing homelessness that led to the widespread violation of people’s rights without even solving the core problem,” said Waxman.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said the agreement “preserves the core of the victory we won 15 years ago.”

In the proposed agreement, littering would no longer be legal if a litterer is within 300 feet of a trash receptacle. One right the homeless would still have: Police would not be able to seize their personal property without due process. And the proposal also counts mats in homeless shelters as beds, which opens up more space for the homeless to sleep in the usually crowded shelters.

Several of the city’s amendment requests were either split down the middle, or rejected. The agreement doesn’t address a request that police be able to to detain the chronically homeless if they refuse help three times in 180 days. And it doesn’t allow police to seize property left in public spaces.

Miami argued that Pottinger was outdated because the city has grown, and the number of homeless has dwindled. Countywide, homeless numbers have dropped from about 8,000 to 800 since the originial settlement — mainly because of the work of the Miami-Dade Couunty Homeless Trust, which was created as a result of the city’s skyrocketing number of homeless people.

In recent years, downtown Miami’s population has almost doubled to 70,000, more than 200 retail stores and restaurants have opened there, condominiums dot the city and cultural venues within walking distance are abundant. Residents and local shopkeepers complain the homeless are brazen, ofen frightening restaurant patrons, and leaving waste behind in public spaces.

Modifying Pottinger is part of an overall plan by the city and its development authority to reenergize the city’s growing downtown district, now teeming with residents and shops. Earlier in the day Thursday commissioners voted unanimously to create a Downtown Pedestrian Priority Zone, which calls for significant street and road improvements to make downtown easier to navigate.

In fighting the city’s proposed amedments to the agreement, the ACLU argued that demographic changes don’t alter the plight of the more than 500 homeless people who remain broke and without a home in the city’s downtown streets.

The effort to amend Pottinger has the support of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, and is very likely to pass muster with commissioners.

The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which spends more than $52 million a year in housing and services for the homeless, followed the negotiations intently. A major issue for the trust has been the plight of the chronically homeless who refuse shelters, and who make up the majority of the remaining homeless in the city.

Last month the Trust announced a new strategy for caring for the chronically homeless that includes getting to know them, providing homes, and tracking their efforts. The “100,000 Homes” campaign works side by side with an effort by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s attempt to end chronic homelessness by 2015.

Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book called the proposed agreement “a game changer.” Though he praised the proposal, he took exception with the clause that allows mats in The Camillus House homeless shelter, saying it goes against the 100,000 Homes campaign.

The settlement between the ACLU and Miami allows the city to revisit Pottinger in 2016 if the homeless issue downtown remains a problem.