Street Sweepers

The City of Miami's court-approved plan to deal with the homeless is one part tough love, two parts blind hope

Tonight's waning half-moon doesn't soften the darkness enveloping the warehouses and abandoned factories in Allapattah's produce district. This darkness is a flat ambient gloom that settles over moldering industrial areas where streetlights are burned out or dismantled by crack addicts in search of metal parts to use or sell. The time is not yet 9:00 but feels like midnight.

Miami Police Officer Luis Condom and city employee Eddie Borges trudge across a rocky, overgrown field that rises toward a tattered hurricane fence about 40 yards north of NW 22nd Street. The fence, parallel to the roadway, stops flush against a back corner of a hulking building with the name Agro-Americas painted on its street façade. Railroad tracks lie just beyond. About ten more people -- four cops and other city employees -- catch up to the two men.

"There's a guy who lives back there," calls out an outreach worker for the city's Office of Homeless Programs. "Don't go too close at first."

Condom and Borges slip through a tear in the fence, the ground beneath it well worn, and head past a rusting cargo container. There are sounds of heavy objects dropping to the ground. Caught in the beam of a powerful flashlight are five men and a woman, all crouched against the building's back wall. Condom, to his great dismay, spots a handgun on the ground in front of one of the men and draws his semiautomatic. "Get up against the goddam wall right now!" he screams. "All of you, get your hands up against that wall!"

The blinking, crumpled figures struggle to their feet, and another officer quickly lines them up with their arms and legs outspread. They are all young, all grimy, all high. The gun turns out to be plastic, painted silver.

By now the rest of the city workers have arrived, and they quickly move into a routine they've been practicing for the past ten days, ever since a federal judge approved the settlement of a landmark lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Miami's homeless population. The groundbreaking settlement mandates significant changes in the way City of Miami police may interact with the homeless, and it establishes guidelines for their arrests.

Each of the corralled crackheads hears a short speech, some variation of which officers must now make before they can arrest a homeless person for certain misdemeanor offenses. "You are trespassing on private property," Condom tells the woman, a beautiful but skeletal 34-year-old named Patsy, who stands unsteadily in thick white Nike sports socks and battered rubber platform sandals. Condom continues: "That's against the law, and a new court settlement has just gone into effect, which means you can be arrested if you continue to stay out here. But we're giving you the alternative of going to a shelter. We'll take you over there. If you do this, we won't arrest you."

"Now you got a choice," adds Lloyd Williams of the Office of Homeless Programs. "You can get assistance." Williams, like all the city's sixteen outreach workers, used to live on the streets. Meanwhile, another member of the outreach team is recording the names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of the six homeless people. Even if they refuse to enter a shelter, the information he takes down will be entered into a Miami-Dade County computer system that tracks the homeless and recipients of emergency housing aid.

"C'mon, let me go, please," Patsy begs Condom, a tall and slender man with stern bearing. The officer and Patsy obviously have had previous conversations, and she knows he's not without compassion. "I don't want to leave my brother," she pleads with glazed eyes. "I just lost my brother two weeks ago. He was murdered, right over there." She motions toward the cargo container. Yellow Walkman headphones arc over her skull, which is covered with fine, close-cropped swirls of black hair.

Livia Garcia, director of the seven-year-old Office of Homeless Programs, walks over and peers at Patsy through wire-rimmed glasses. Garcia looks more like a Sunday-school teacher than someone who spends much of her workday getting to know the homeless. Her appearance also belies the fact that she possesses the political savvy necessary to have outmaneuvered and outlasted bureaucrats and schemers in order to set up the program she now heads. "We placed you awhile ago in Agape," she observes. "You've lost some weight."

"I've lost weight," Patsy admits. "I've been doing drugs." She fishes a cigarette out of a purse strapped around her waist and searches in the darkness for a light.

"Is this any fun, having the police come back and kick you out of here night after night?" Williams presses her. "You may not think I know what you're going through, what kind of addict I used to be. But I've been clean and sober for nine years now, and I don't ever regret it. You can do it. God led me here to show you that you can do it. Hey, if you don't like [the shelter], you can walk away."

Condom, who has been picking through debris under the boxcar, strides over, holding out a bag fashioned from paper used to wrap cigars laced with marijuana or crushed crack rocks. "Tell her I found her stash," he says. He holds the bag open to show a pile of red plastic squares: a dozen tiny packets of crack.

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