Street Sweepers

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

Most experts on legal issues in homelessness, however, consider the changes in law enforcement's approach the most significant part of the settlement. "The police protocol is really a model around the country," says attorney Arthur Rosenberg. "The police are invested in dealing with homeless people, whereas the way the community dealt with them before was to arrest them."

"The original [Pottinger] decision was the first major decision by a circuit court anywhere in the country on this issue," says Kelly Cunningham, a staff attorney at the National Law Center for Poverty and Homelessness in Washington, D.C. She says, "The settlement was a detailed framework for how police should handle the homeless, and that was new as well. We're sending it out as a national model. It's not perfect, but it is something out there that is better than what is going on in most cities."

Indeed, Rosenberg and others who work with the homeless locally can name at least a dozen municipalities, including Fort Lauderdale, which is under the threat of a similar lawsuit from Florida Legal Services, that have sought information on the protocol. Other lawsuits challenging local ordinances or policies affecting homeless people are pending in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas. A study being completed by the National Law Center reflects an increase in what advocates call anti-homeless ordinances, according to center policy analyst Laurel Weir. This follows an apparent rise in the homeless population nationwide, Weir adds, and public frustration with a lack of solutions to a seemingly intractable problem.

In Miami-Dade County, however, censuses conducted by the Homeless Trust have shown a drop in the homeless population, from about 6000 in the early Nineties to 4000 now. The numbers are highly inexact (homeless people are much harder to find now that the camps are gone) but most local advocates believe there has been some decrease. After all, according to generally accepted calculations by the Community Partnership for Homeless, $120 million in both private and public money for homeless services has poured into the county since 1993, compared to zero before.

That doesn't impress Miami residents who are angry that police haven't done more to prevent vagrants from disturbing their neighborhoods. Garcia has received so many inquiries about the Pottinger settlement that she is supplementing outreach to the homeless with talks at community centers, schools, and churches.

"As you know, the Pottinger suit has been settled, and we can address some issues that are impacting our streets," Garcia told a recent meeting of the Shorecrest Homeowners Association on the city's ethnically and economically diverse Upper Eastside. Residents here and elsewhere in Miami say they have seen homeless people dumped inside city limits by police from other municipalities, such as Miami Shores and Miami Beach. (This is a phenomenon allegedly witnessed for years, but which Miami police say residents are loath to complain about without more proof; spokesmen for the Miami Shores and Miami Beach departments assert they haven't heard of the practice and would not condone it.)

The Legion Park neighborhood, in whose clubhouse the homeowners hold their monthly meetings, is frequently clogged with squatters. "In about two weeks we've placed around 200 homeless persons in shelters," Garcia asserted. "But what I came here to say is, Do not expect to see homeless people [gone from] the street, because they have a right to be homeless as long as they don't infringe on your rights."

Some of the city cops attending from the department's north station told Garcia they were having problems with the new system. Sure, they were glad to have their policing powers returned. But all the documentation and rules, and a lack of manpower, are major burdens. "Let's say I got three homeless," explained Lt. Sebastian Aguirre, commander of the Upper Eastside force. "Let's say they got three bags of property each. I don't have time to deal with that. You know what my force is? Five officers. You have domestic violence, you got burglaries, you got the homeless. My worst problem is on Sunday nights. We need help 24 hours."

"You call channel nine [on the police frequency]," Garcia responded. "Channel nine wakes me up. I call the shelter, they tell me they've got five beds. The officers take [the homeless persons] to the shelter. Give us a chance."

"The shelters do not want the property," Aguirre countered.
"But they agreed to take it," Garcia insisted.
The meeting broke for a short recess, and the homeowners association president, Heikki Talvitie, rose from his chair at the front of the meeting hall to face his neighbors. "Now," he concluded triumphantly, "you can call the police when you see homeless people around."

The homeless people who have downed beer, smoked crack, and gone to sleep just about every night for years out on "the slab" downtown are not at all pleased with the new police policy. In street jargon slab generally means sidewalks, but this slab is a particular, time-honored gathering place accommodating anywhere from 50 to 100 people per night. The aged, shaded sidewalks on either side of North Miami Avenue between Tenth and Eleventh streets are bustling with commerce during weekdays and blocked with blankets, mattresses, and baby carriages at night. (Following a police crackdown on purloined shopping carts, carriages are now the common means of storing and transporting possessions.) To survive on this slab denizens must have a trip, or scam, and must know how to take advantage of institutional help while fiercely staying away from institutions. By now most of them have gotten the message from the police officers who stop by at night just as they're getting comfortable: They'll have to find another spot.

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