Miami-Dade County

Overtown streets where homeless live are blockaded during public health investigation

Discarded hypodermic needles are scattered under an 836 overpass in Overtown.
Discarded hypodermic needles are scattered under an 836 overpass in Overtown.

Under the rumble of cars driving on the expressway, Philip Sylverin swept a portion of the sidewalk where he sleeps at night. He paused and leaned on a shopping cart packed with clothing and other personal items, a few feet from a milk crate tied to the chain-link fence that serves as a bookshelf.

He stood between barricades police recently placed at multiple intersections in this stretch of Overtown, preventing cars from driving on four roads running under the Dolphin/836 expressway that are lined with homeless people. On one street, police set up surveillance cameras Monday in hopes of capturing drug deals.

“We’re just trying to survive,” Sylverin said, a hypodermic needle in his hand.

Four streets between Northwest Second Avenue and Northwest First Avenue are now the center of a public health investigation into the transmission of hepatitis C and HIV, an issue stirring up reactions from politicians, police, the courts and homeless advocates. A Miami official said the number of cases in this area has recently increased.

Health officials are not commenting on the magnitude of the problem, citing an active investigation. But the situation is serious enough that Miami commissioners last week ordered the closure of these streets to traffic. Police have set up cameras. And representatives from multiple local and state agencies convened an emergency meeting with a local circuit judge to develop a plan to get dozens of people with addictions into drug treatment and to close down what is being described as an “opioid den.”

Miami officials have closed four streets under the 836 expressway in Overtown as health officials investigate the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Joey Flechas

“We have to take a public health approach,” said Judge Steve Leifman, who discussed the issue on Friday with officials from the Florida Department of Health, Jackson Memorial Hospital and the city of Miami. ”Any action taken has to be coordinated, lawful and appropriate to get those individuals into treatment as quickly as we can and to prevent new individuals with serious opioid addiction from returning to that area.”

The logistics of providing a large group of homeless people with drug treatment are challenging. Without giving specifics, Leifman said officials are close to finalizing a plan where several agencies will marshal dollars and people to take action soon.

“We need to make access to care easier, and that is not always the case,” he said.

The sentiment is shared by several of the homeless who live on these streets, who are confused by the heightened police presence and health officials carrying clipboards who have conducted interviews in recent days. They told the Miami Herald they fear being rounded up and arrested.

“I think they should arrest these f---ing dealers,” said Margot Kenyon, 46. “But they’ll go after junkies sitting on the street shooting up.”

Local health workers recently asked the police department not to do that, a plea that so far the cops have heeded.

“To conduct our investigation, it is imperative that the department know the location of those individuals who currently are found in that area,” wrote Lillian Rivera, director of the Miami-Dade health department, in a Sept. 19 letter to the Miami Police Department. “Disbursement or relocation of the population will significantly impact our ability to find those individuals and complete our investigation.”

Miami police have set up surveillance cameras on one of four closed streets under the 836 expressway in Overtown as health officials investigate the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Joey Flechas

Sylverin described living on a section of Northwest Second Avenue under the overpass, a shield from the elements. He spoke of run-ins with the police, losing friends to overdoses and trying to be discreet while being intimate with a woman even after the police tore down a small cardboard shelter he’d put together for privacy.

He and others said many people on the street have untold traumas in their lives that lead them to self-medicate. Over Sylverin’s shoulder on the opposite sidewalk, a man sat doubled over on a crate with his head resting on his forearms. Another man sitting on a mattress next to him slowly swayed back and forth as if in a daze, his eyes closed.

“A lot of people out here are sick,” Sylverin said.

“Give me a break. Somebody give me a f---ing break,” Hardemon said at a public meeting last week. “This has to stop.”

School officials reacted too. On Wednesday, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho warned parents about needles and other debris found outside nearby schools. “I encourage all students and families to remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious activity or loitering individuals” to school administrators, he said in an email.

The health issue comes at a difficult moment in the city government’s relationship with the homeless. Miami has asked a federal judge to dissolve or modify the Pottinger Agreement, a consent decree that prevents the police from arresting the homeless for loitering. Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union are representing the homeless in the hearing, which began last week and is expected to continue in federal court later this month.

The police department, accused of harassment and street sweeps that violate the agreement, is now tasked with balancing the wishes of public health officials and politicians. For now, the cameras have been mounted to see if drug deals are occurring in the open, and vehicular traffic has been restricted.

“I don’t know how long we’ll keep that up for,” said Police Chief Jorge Colina, adding that he has to respect people’s rights to be in that space and walk through it. “We can’t restrict pedestrian access.”

Herald staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.