Criminalizing the homeless

ON THE STREET: Miami police officer enforcing city ordinances being broken by the homeless.
ON THE STREET: Miami police officer enforcing city ordinances being broken by the homeless. MIAMI HERALD

Thursday, the Miami City Commission is scheduled to take a final vote on an ordinance to make living outdoors in tents or makeshift shelter illegal. It’s called an “anti-camping” ordinance, but it’s really a tool that squarely targets the homeless. It empowers police officers to arrest violators without offering them a shelter bed first.

Coupled with a recent anti-urination-defecation ordinance, the new proposal criminalizes homelessness. It rolls back another concession won in the 1998 Pottinger consent decree, which enabled the homeless to engage in “life-sustaining activities” that would otherwise be illegal. Pottinger was hailed as the gold standard for homeless rights across the country, but Miami continues to chip away at it.

The ordinance, sponsored by Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, was crafted to address a sudden spike in tents rising in downtown Miami, a legitimate concern.

“My biggest concern has and always will be the blocking of the public right-of-way by these tents and makeshift shelters,” Mr. Sarnoff said in a statement. “No family with a baby stroller should be forced into the street because it is partially impassable due to tents or makeshift shelters.”

Agreed. Downtown is making progress as a hub of culture, tourism and commerce. The last thing it needs is a growing “tent city.”

As before, the Editorial Board supports stepped-up, collaborative action to permanently reduce the numbers of chronically homeless people downtown and beyond. But the ordinance would make the lives of homeless virtually impossible, and that, too, is unacceptable. The ordinance is watered down from the original proposed last month. That wording prohibited the placement of bedrolls, pillows, blankets and sleeping bags on sidewalks, or erecting a tent or temporary domicile on public land.

Responding to criticism from activists, Commissioner Sarnoff softened the wording, leaving only the ban on any form camp tenting or makeshift shelter.

But jail is not a solution to homelessness. In 2013, Mr. Sarnoff proposed a resolution in which the city would pay for 15 shelter beds, at about $164,000 a year if the Homeless Trust funded 85 beds from its $52 million budget. As always, the most critical need is for “emergency beds” which automatically bring mental health, substance abuse and other services, Susan Racher, director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Miami, told the Editorial Board.

Panhandlers and other homeless individuals can be a nuisance and an eyesore in Miami’s burgeoning downtown. But let’s remember, too, that they are people who need comprehensive help. Plus, the “arrest first” approach got Miami into trouble decades ago.

The battle between the city and the homeless is long and litigious. Miami’s handling of its homeless population has been in and out of court since the late 1980s, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a landmark class-action federal lawsuit on behalf of the city’s homeless population. It alleged the city moved to systematically push the homeless from the city, resulting in Pottinger.

Barbara “Bobbie” Ibarra, executive director, Miami Coalition for the Homeless, said the proposed ordinance fails to recognize one reality:

If you become homeless in Miami-Dade, it takes at least 30 days to get into a shelter. Where are you going to go until then?

The proposed ordinance is a step backwards. Once again, it’s on the city and the Trust to get more beds on line.