There is a debate in the city of Miami over exactly how much power the police should have to remove homeless people from the streets. My ACLU friends contend that unfettered, the police will harass and criminalize the homeless. On the opposite side are the “downtown interests,” both business and residents, who say the homeless are a blight on the excitement of our maturing downtown area.
You would think there are no other stakeholders. But there are, and I include myself in this group.
I live in The Roads, which lies just outside downtown, right behind South Dixie Highway. I cannot tell you how annoying it is to look over my back fence and see people setting up shop, tent and all. Most of my neighbors have young children who like to walk with their dogs on the grass strip along South Dixie Highway. When your children have to step around homeless people and hop over food waste and human excrement, you start to lose patience with restraints being put on the city. You want the homeless someplace else. Close by is scenic Alice Wainwright Park, and the homeless congregate there as well. I often go there and have befriended a homeless man named Cliff.
I am not just viscerally responding to the loss of my grass strip to homeless people. I've been involved with the issue for some time. I was the state legislator who, in 1993, helped pass the restaurant tax specifically earmarked to provide a continuum of care for all the homeless in Miami-Dade County. That tax was the brainchild of Alvah Chapman, publisher of the Miami Herald. Some people thought Chapman just wanted the homeless away from the Herald’s downtown edifice. Actually, he had flown 50 missions over Nazi Germany and this was his one last mission in life — to save lives, not destroy them. As chair of the House Finance and Taxation Committee I had the power and the leverage to pass or stop any tax bill. It so happened that the Republican Senate President had a tax bill of his own: a $2 million-a-year tax exemption for the Golf Hall of Fame in Jacksonville. The two taxes could not have been for more different purposes. But by combining them there was enough horsepower to pass both through a Democratic House and a Republican Senate.
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The irony is rich.
The Homeless Trust, funded by the restaurant tax and other sources, and its community providers have almost 9,000 homeless under care. However, 3,500 people still remain homeless (1,000 unsheltered and 2,500 sheltered). Roughly 350, like my friend Cliff, are chronically homeless, some with severe mental health problems.
There is an obvious place to go for additional funding to take care of the remaining homeless. Out of political necessity restaurants in three cities were exempted from the tax: Miami Beach, Surfside and Bal Harbour. Despite the tax exemption, the city of Miami Beach alone benefits with an estimated $5.6 million from homeless continuum-of-care housing and services. It is time for the mayors and city commissions of these three cities to do the right thing these 25 years later and urge the Legislature to repeal their exemption and level the playing field.
The additional money, estimated to be $6 million to $7 million annually would allow the Trust to provide permanent housing and appropriate mental health services for Cliff and others like him. It would add badly needed short- to mid-term rental assistance and, hopefully, entice some property owners to work more with the homeless.
Most homeless people strike me as fairly benign. But should they be allowed, as they can legally do now, to live behind my neighbor’s house and possibly endanger the health and welfare of neighborhood children? We should provide them with a safe and welcoming place to go — and if there is such a place they need to leave. If this has to be done humanely by police under the watchful eye of the Homeless Trust, I am all for it.
If my liberal friends don’t like it, bring your kids over, and we will go for a little walk.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.