Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Miami struggles with an unsolvable dilemma

When it came time for the public to speak — and nearly everyone had more to say than their two-minute allotments allowed — the disconnect was startling.

Homeless advocates spoke with considerable passion, sometimes in soaring rhetoric, accusing the Miami City Commission of trying to criminalize the homeless. They talked about homeless hate laws.

And a few homeless and formerly homeless men came to the microphone to describe the plight they had faced after life turned wretched and left them with few options other than the street.

Then came the merchants, most of them owners of little shops along the iffy blocks of downtown Miami, where metal shutters remain a business necessity. They spoke of dispiriting collateral issues associated with street vagrants, like petty crime, customers intimidated by aggressive beggars and the unseemly problem of human waste.

It was a collision of rhetorical incongruities; three contentious hours that swung from grand sermons on constitutional rights, about protecting the least fortunate among us from police harassment, to the discomfiting testimony of shop owners who must begin their workdays removing human excrement from around their storefronts.

Then came the startling reminder from an ACLU lawyer that, at least in the city of Miami, the homeless were afforded the unique right to public defecation and urination without fear of arrest. The moment was like a passage from a satirical novel. (The latest revision to the federal court agreement limiting police interaction with Miami’s homeless employs the less graphic euphemism “call of nature.”)

Defecation was a recurring theme. I would have guessed that Thursday’s hearing set some kind of dreary record for utterances of the word, but then I noticed the minutes of the Miami City Commission’s Jan. 8 meeting that went on for pages with a discussion of this very issue.

Thursday’s meeting was ostensibly about another, related problem. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff had proposed an ordinance that would prohibit camping on public property. Mostly, the commissioners were concerned with tents along downtown sidewalks, though officials from the Miami River Commission came to Thursday’s meeting to say that homeless campsites were a big problem along the river.

The ordinance originally would have made it illegal to erect tents and use cooking equipment and cots and other bedding along the sidewalks, but by Thursday Sarnoff had removed “bedrolls, bedding, blankets, pillows and sleeping bags” from the prohibition list. By meeting’s end, the commission decided to just defer the confounding issue to another day.

Commissioner Sarnoff had issued a statement before the meeting, announcing that he had pared down the proposed ordinance. “I have listened carefully to the concerns of experts on homelessness and others within our community and I believe this modification is a worthy compromise. My biggest concern has and always will be the blocking of the public right-of-way by these tents and makeshift shelters.”

Tents, indeed, have been erected on the sidewalks along North Miami Avenue and a few side streets along the northwest fringes of downtown, though most of the men made do with make-shift bedrolls fashioned from old blankets or slats of foam. My colleague David Smiley reported that perhaps as many as 600 men and women live rough in downtown Miami, sleeping on sidewalks, in nooks, in the old fashioned alcoves. Except lately, street refugees find themselves in discordant proximity to a downtown condo boom that the city had struggled for years to cultivate, bringing in hundreds of prosperous, new residents unhappy about tiptoeing around the slumbering bodies strewn along their walkways.

Sarnoff noted Thursday that surrounding cities like Coral Gables and Miami Beach and North Miami have passed anti-camping ordinances without such an outcry, perhaps making Miami’s permissive atmosphere more attractive to transients. “We’re like the hole in the doughnut,” he said.

But Miami is still paying for the sins of the 1980s, when the town, overwhelmed by thousands of vagrants, directed police “to identify food sources for the poor and to arrest and/or force an extraction of the undesirables from the area.” The cops raided homeless camps, rousting the homeless from public parks and highway underpasses, and would destroy their meager belongings. It was a heartless campaign that led to an inevitable lawsuit in 1988. The city finally settled the landmark case and the federal courts have long since loomed over the city’s interactions with the homeless.

Since then, Miami and Miami-Dade County certainly have done more for its down-and-out sector than most communities, certainly in Florida, dedicating a one percent restaurant food and alcoholic beverage tax for the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, lately worth $54 million. Homeless advocates characterize Sarnoff as the villain in this latest drama, but last year he cobbled together the city’s MAT program, a $700,000 public-private consortium that provides cushioned mats and temporary shelter at the Camillus House.

And speaker after speaker Thursday talked about James Bernat, the Miami police officer who acts as the department’s homeless liaison. Homeless men described Bernat in heroic terms, and told how he got them off the streets and saved them from an ignominious descent. We’re a long way from the harsh Miami attitudes of the 1980s.

Yet a stroll down North Miami Avenue still takes you along a dismal tableau of disaffected street dwellers, nestled against their black plastic garbage bags stuffed with belongings, by bedrolls, the occasional tent, along a sidewalk littered with their trash. All this just a couple blocks from the construction site of a glitzy, three-million-square-feet rail hub, retail, office and hotel complex; a study in urban contrasts, a harbinger of conflicts to come.

Everyone at Thursday’s meeting talked about finding some humane solution. But variations of this conversation have been unfolding for years, in hundreds of cities across America. It could be that urban homelessness has become an unsolvable problem, at least for a city government. Cities are faced with a considerable percentage of transients who are mentally ill and off their meds, who are doomed to a derelict life by a woeful mental healthcare system and civil rights laws that allow the mentally deranged to decide whether they’re in need of medication. Others are drug addicts and alcoholics or some wretched combination of addiction and mental illness. They wander the urban streets with folks who simply lost their jobs and their homes and are on the streets because of economic trauma.

Nor is the city dealing with a static population. Warm weather towns like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which suffered its own spate of notoriety last year after trying to direct homeless feeding programs away from parks and beaches, attract drifters from harsher climates, a subterranean tourism that brings in an ever changing collection of dysfunctional lives in need of rescue.

It’s not just South Florida struggling with this. Conflicts between merchants and residents and city officials with homeless populations are pervasive. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty surveyed 187 U.S. cities last year and found that citywide bans on public camping have increased 60 percent, begging bans have increased 25 percent and bans on sitting or lying down have increased 43 percent. The number of cities that prohibit sleeping in cars went from 37 in 2011 to 81 in 2014.

The National Coalition for the Homeless reported that in the past two years, 20 other cities have passed ordinances similar to the outdoor feeding restrictions adopted last year (amid howls of outrage) by Fort Lauderdale.

Meanwhile, city officials all over worry that if their towns are too generous, too permissive, they’ll attract droves of transient folks from meaner places. Like Daytona Beach, Tampa, Melbourne and DeLand, which have all adopted get-tough-on-the-homeless ordinances in the last few years.

Last year, Sarasota funded a program to offer the homeless one-way tickets out of town. Miami, here we come.

But the homelessness plaguing urban streets beg for some comprehensive approach by state and national government. Shoving this off onto cities only creates partial solutions and irreconcilable differences, leaving bodies still littering the sidewalk. Leaving unhappy merchants to begin their day hosing away the detritus of inadequate policies.