Street Sweepers

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

Police treatment of vagrants prompted the original class-action lawsuit against the City of Miami, filed by ACLU lawyers in 1988. The suit came to be known as the Pottinger case, after its lead plaintiff, Michael Pottinger. Homeless people like Pottinger, and their advocates had become increasingly indignant over a series of sweeps and routs, often in preparation for big events like the Orange Bowl Parade or visits from dignitaries, during which police frequently burned or discarded the personal effects of street people. Pottinger alleged that while the city had a policy of illegally arresting the homeless for performing necessary daily activities in public, it had no policy of providing alternatives to street life. The suit also sought to stop the destruction of their possessions.

In 1991 U.S. District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins caused a sensation by ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. "The judge said if you're going to interfere in people's lives and arrest them, at the same time offer them a place to go, like a quid pro quo of civic responsibility," says Arthur Rosenberg, a Florida Legal Services attorney who worked on the case.

In a more controversial move, Atkins ordered the city to create two or more "safe zones" where the homeless could live as normally as possible. The city appealed Atkins's ruling, which halted the implementation of his order. Thus Miami never formally established any safe zones, but officials nevertheless adopted a hands-off policy toward the homeless. This resulted in fewer arrests and property seizures, as well as the development of sprawling, near-autonomous homeless camps. "The police were under a lot of pressure," recalls Livia Garcia. "Many officers became so scared of getting into trouble that they just stopped having anything to do with them. If they saw something illegal, they figured out it was safer just to walk away."

Regardless of the standoff between the city and the ACLU, and the slow pace of the lawsuit, its mere existence proved to be a catalyst, in many ways unprecedented in the nation. In 1993, after local bureaucrats proved unable to cope with the enormity of cleaning up a contaminated, crime-ridden homeless encampment called the Mud Flats, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed a commission to find a solution to Dade's homeless problem. Later that year county voters approved a one-percent restaurant tax to underwrite homeless services, the first such dedicated source of funding anywhere in the nation. The county's Homeless Trust was established to oversee a system of care, and the downtown 350-bed HAC was built with eight million dollars in private donations and public funds (another nearly identical facility opened this past October in South Dade).

The Mud Flats, formed in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, was one of the earliest of about a half-dozen homeless enclaves in Miami that came and went during the next four years while the city and the ACLU remained at an impasse and the Homeless Trust worked on getting more beds. There were several smaller encampments, too, but the big ones held anywhere from 100 to 300 folks. A shantytown covered the grassy knolls and gravel waterfront at Bicentennial Park, the scenic bayside development that nobody but vagrants dared enter; there was the minitown at the foot of an overpass in Overtown; and two teeming settlements that overran acres of paved city parking lots, including one under the I-395 overpass. The last big camp overlooked the Miami River and boasted its own evangelical and Catholic churches, its own whorehouse, and at least two crackhouses (all ingeniously constructed of found materials), not to mention a resident cook from Alabama.

With Judge Atkins's permission, Garcia's office, police, and other city departments methodically cleared out all the camps, one by one, in exchange for promising to relocate the camp residents. (Although many moved into motels and shelters and enrolled in job-training programs, funds to continue helping them were scarce, and there's no evidence that the massive relocations had any lasting effect.)

In 1995 the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal sent the Pottinger lawsuit back to Judge Atkins, asking him to evaluate the city's progress in protecting the civil rights of homeless people and in establishing programs to assist them. After hearing arguments from the city and from the ACLU, Atkins concluded that the City of Miami had not done enough to change the situation substantially, thus reinstating his 1991 order. Once again the city appealed, and the case went to mediation in March 1996. A mediation committee reached a settlement in October 1997, and the Miami City Commission approved the agreement that December. What followed were months of hashing out the particulars: a police protocol, and a procedure for compensating homeless or formerly homeless people who could prove their civil rights had been violated. Those particulars received court approval this past November 1.

The process of compensation will start January 4, 1999. This part of the settlement has received more attention than the law-enforcement aspect, no doubt because the city will have to spend a total of $1.5 million, a sum that includes cash payments to any person who can submit police records to prove he or she was homeless and wrongfully arrested at any time from 1984 until the end of 1997. After a 90-day application period, U.S. Magistrate Ted Bandstra will decide which claims are valid and will divide $600,000 among them; no one person will receive more than $1500, and any money that remains will go to homeless services. (About nine attorneys who worked on the case will split a total of $900,000 in fees during the next three years, an amount some residents and public officials find excessive.) Notices about the compensation have been published in local newspapers, and attorneys and law students working with the ACLU have begun to inform some of the organizations working with the homeless about the application process.

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