Past the barricades, mounds of personal belongings mixed with trash and dirty mattresses where vagrants lay with needles still clutched by limp hands, Shatara Mackey walks with her 7-year-old son to Phillis Wheatley Elementary.
Northwest Second Avenue under the Dolphin/SR 836 overpass is a better route than the next block over, she says.
“It’s just got worse,” said Mackey, 31. “You can see them using and everything down there.”
That’s why Mackey continues her early morning walks through the barricaded street, even as officials conduct a public health investigation into the spread of HIV and hepatitis C at the homeless encampment. Five schools in the area have been on alert for suspicious activity and loitering — including her son’s school. At least two discarded needles were found at a nearby school.
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Just two hours before Mackey and her son arrived at school, a barefoot woman leaning next to the flagpole at Phillis Wheatley fidgeted with a needle before lifting up her Reebok shirt. She left when a custodian walked outside to present the colors for another school day in Overtown.
Ron Book came to the Miami-Dade County School Board committee meetings last week to talk about the school district’s legislative strategy in Tallahassee.
But at the urging of School Board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, who represents schools in Miami’s urban core, he gave an impromptu, impassioned speech about an “opioid and open sex den” close by several schools.
“You can drive there right now and you can sit and just watch it,” Book told district officials. “It’s something we have never seen in the 24½ years I’ve been chair of the Homeless Trust.”
Two days before, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho received reports that custodians at iPrep Academy, the technology magnet school on Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 15th Street where Carvalho serves as principal, found two discarded needles on school grounds.
He gave Book a list of five schools in the area that could use the help of the Homeless Trust, which finds people experiencing homelessness and connects them to shelters and resources. They were Frederick Douglass Elementary, Phillis Wheatley, iPrep and, farther away, Paul Laurence Dunbar K-8 Center and Booker T. Washington High.
Notices were sent out to parents at those schools, encouraging students and families to remain vigilant and immediately report suspicious activity or loitering to school administrators. Carvalho ordered schools police to increase patrols around school buildings and conduct inspections around the perimeter to pick up any paraphernalia before students arrive.
iPrep has also seen an increase of loitering people around the back of the school near a playground. “No loitering” signs were recently installed.
But Carvalho says homelessness isn’t the issue, as homeless people have been around iPrep since it opened nine years ago. “You never found needles or other refuse around iPrep,” he said.
“I don’t recall in this area ever dealing with a situation like this,” Carvalho continued. “It’s not surprising. All of the sudden the opioid crisis is real and it is not a crisis that’s touching just rural or urban America. It’s pretty universal and ubiquitous. And I think it’s encroaching upon areas where kids services are provided, like schools.”
Helping the homeless
Willie Rachel is up before dawn driving around the streets of Overtown, scavenging through waist-high grassy fields.
“Every now and then you catch someone hanging around,” he says.
Across the street from Dunbar K-8 near I-95 and Northwest 20th Street, Rachel leads team members of the Homeless Trust to Jose Diaz. He’s lived in a tent made of tarp with a bicycle and a few changes of clothing since Hurricane Irma hit a year ago.
In Spanish, Diaz tells them he needs one more day to pack up his stuff. He’s secured a place to stay for $50 a week.
Rachel has helped move about a half dozen homeless people away from the schools. But parents seemed unfazed about any issues.
Irvin L., who wouldn’t provide his last name, walks under the expressway to take his twin daughters and son to Frederick Douglass. He’s come across discarded plastic bags that probably contained drugs on the sidewalk.
“I try to educate about what it is to identify it and not pick it up,” said Irvin, 58. “I understand because I used to be homeless.
“I’m concerned because needles can be left around the area,” he said.
Yolanda Clark, 28, walks her daughter to kindergarten at Frederick Douglass on Northwest 11th Terrace past Booker T. Washington High. She says she’s not concerned and has felt safe.
“I walk her every morning,” she said.
Frederick Douglass’ principal, Yolanda Ellis, said her custodians haven’t reported finding any paraphernalia on school grounds recently but have found needles and condoms in the past. She said she has noticed an increased number of homeless people under the bridge near Northwest 11th Street but has not heard any complaints from parents.
“I guess it’s just a community issue, but it’s not affecting our school,” she said.
Carvalho said he has heard that drug paraphernalia has been found in an alley between Frederick Douglass and Booker T.
Ten-year-old Alton Banks was a student at Frederick Douglass when he died suddenly from exposure to fentanyl in June 2017. An hour after leaving the pool across the street from the school at Gibson Park, he vomited and fell unconscious in his home. Officials are still unsure how the boy came into contact with the powerful drug.
“I freak out period because just the thing about the homeless people coming to school,” said Tonya Bailey, who works at the front desk at Frederick Douglass. “You never know what their frame of mind is.”
Custodians at schools were reluctant to talk about an increase in issues with drug paraphernalia and loiterers.
James Monsanto said he’s found needles before in his five years working as a custodian at Frederick Douglass Elementary but not recently.
Jonathan King is the custodian who raised the flag at Phillis Wheatley, where the woman appeared to use drugs. He said he sees people hanging around before dawn.
“I don’t even know what she was doing,” he said. “ I didn’t even pay her that much attention.”
King, who has worked at the school for 21 years, talked about finding “different stuff” around the school, including bags and syringes around the back of campus, as he raked leaves and litter from the school entrance.
“I just keep doing what I’m doing,” he said.