Street Sweepers

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

The six, all of whom finally agree to spend the night in a shelter, are escorted to a police van waiting in the street among squad cars and unmarked city cars and trucks. The van heads for the campuslike Homeless Assistance Center (commonly referred to as the HAC) on NW Fifteenth Street, while Garcia and her team head off in other vehicles, moving slowly down the dim streets to the next destination, another homeless hangout. "She'll be right back out there tomorrow," Garcia shrugs, "but at least we put the idea in her head."

That night the police and the outreach group will ferret out two men and a woman lurking among semis parked along Fifteenth Avenue, and both men, reeking of the street, will insist they do have homes, that they're just on their way to work. After that the team will confront several men sleeping on blanket- and cardboard-covered benches in Comstock Park, a few hundred yards from a brightly lighted field where a kids' softball game is being played.

A few nights later Garcia will lead yet another joint outreach excursion. She and three or four of her workers will meet up with officers at a Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office in another section of the city, and they'll all go out again to find homeless people and inform them of the new day dawning in Miami.

For most of the past decade, much of Miami was essentially a "safe zone" for the homeless; police were virtually powerless to prevent them from loitering, sleeping, or living in many public spaces (homeless encampments even thrived for years right across the street from the Miami Police Department's downtown headquarters). But as of this past November 1, there is no longer such a thing as a safe zone. Police can now remove homeless people from public areas and arrest them for violating of ordinances that activists term anti-homeless: laws banning behavior that often accompanies homelessness, such as shaving in public bathrooms or sleeping on the sidewalk.

At the same time city police have to operate by new rules. Learning them has been a fairly big deal for the department. To begin, all officers have to take an hourlong course. "It regards sensitivity to the homeless condition," explains officer and training coordinator Roger Smith. "How to handle them as far as making the approach, and how to handle involvement in criminal activities."

Then comes the fieldwork. The outreach forays, conducted throughout the city with NET representatives and guided by Garcia's office, took up several hours per week throughout November. Garcia has been phasing out the sessions now that officers are more familiar with their new responsibilities.

The settlement states that when someone "who, because of his or her homelessness, commits one of [eleven] misdemeanors," police are now required to offer that person the option of entering an emergency shelter instead of being arrested. If no shelter beds are available, "the police officer may not have any further contact with the homeless person." In other words the officer can't make an arrest or stop the behavior because it's considered "life-sustaining conduct."

The misdemeanors include: living or sleeping in a vehicle; loitering in a restroom; littering; camping, setting fires, and building temporary living quarters in parks; and displaying public nudity when "carry[ing] on the daily necessities of life." Officers must also document every encounter with a homeless person, even if no arrest is made. They also must inform Garcia personally whenever they place someone in a shelter; she keeps a running total of available beds, at all hours. Recently another Miami homeless facility, Camillus House, made four beds available to Garcia for these placements as long as she may need them, but nearly everyone is taken to the HAC because it's the city's largest emergency facility, and the only one open 24 hours per day.

After a little more than a month of the new routine, Garcia says, 469 homeless people have come to the HAC after being warned of possible arrest; of those, 129 agreed to enter some form of long-term rehabilitation. (The Miami Police Department doesn't keep separate statistics on arrests of homeless people; these numbers are expected to increase, but officers assigned to NET offices say that so far they're more likely to resort to warnings.) It's too early to tell what percentage of those brought to the HAC will make a serious attempt to get off the street, cautions Lynn Summers, executive director of Community Partnership for Homeless, which operates the HAC. "Are they just hanging out here until the heat is off and then going back?" she wonders. "It's going to take 18 to 24 months before we know how this is working." One thing of which she is already sure: Those coming in because of the new policy are different. "These are people who have been homeless for years and years and years. The hard core."

Most of Miami's hard-core homeless are well known to Garcia and her outreach workers, who have seen them in and out of shelters and rehab programs over several years, always coming back to the home they know best: the street. Even if all the homeless people in Miami really wanted to come in and get clean, the system couldn't begin to accommodate them. There are more shelter spaces in Dade than ever -- 921 beds, by the latest Dade County Homeless Trust count. But that is still 241 fewer than needed, according to statistics compiled by the Trust. And even after they've spent the maximum time (30 to 60 days) in an emergency shelter, the formerly homeless face a far worse shortage of transitional and permanent housing.

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