Street Sweepers

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

When they see squad cars approaching, the men (hardly any women stay here, and the ones who do are usually frightfully marked by violence or addiction or both) begin shoving their belongings into plastic trash bags and quickly disappear into some alley or underpass. But they always know what's happening on the slab, and when to come back. No doubt some have figured out, too, that the cops can't banish them if there isn't shelter space.

On a recent night Felix Howell was one of the few left standing on the slab by 8:30, when officers and outreach workers alighted from their cars and trucks. "They just started doing this the week of the elections," Howell said, scowling. "We're not bothering anybody. The business owners don't mind us being here. I'm not going. It's my choice. I gotta be at work at 5:00 and I'm not going to go to no orientation [at the HAC] at 5:30. I spent two nights there and they kicked me out for drinking a beer. I'm 48 and I can't drink a beer?" Dressed in matching athletic pants and jacket, Howell crossed the street to join two men walking west.

That night Livia Garcia was unhappy because she'd just been informed the HAC had only two beds available; she had thought there were a dozen, and concluded that officers must have been taking people there without informing her. After John Shaw agreed to go, there was one bed left. Shaw, a grizzled man about 60 years old, wearing camouflage pants, a long T-shirt, and a Dolphins cap, leaned on his baby buggy, three garbage bags full of clothes and other gear strapped in. His right eyeball was covered with a milky film, and he looked too tired to walk. "The HAC put me in a program, and then the program closed down," he said. "I don't want to go back."

"You're punishing yourself," Garcia told him. "They'll put you in another program. They'll help you get your [disability] check."

Shaw stood numbly by his buggy and finally said, "I'm tired of being dogged out." As the officers waited, he pulled some clothes out of his trash bags to take with him to the shelter and left the rest behind.

Then a white van pulled up to the curb. The people from the New Life in Jesus Christ Ministries, a Hallandale church, were there to dispense the word of God and a hot meal. They've been doing this every Monday for the past six years, said Pastor Joseph Austin. He had heard about Miami's new policing policy from the men on the slab, and he was thinking of delivering food to shelters instead, "being that they're taking them to different facilities now." But even though the sidewalk was almost empty at the moment, he knew a flock would soon emerge from the shadows.

And he was right. One by one, men came back to the slab. Church members placed two coolers and mounds of plastic-wrapped Styrofoam cups on a little portable table by the van. As usual Pastor Joseph preached and prayed. He began with a Scripture reading: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

Most of the waiting men showed no reaction or emotion. More than anything, they looked dogged out. But they listened in silence as Pastor Joseph described his own fall into addiction and later, salvation. "When my life got into chaos," he intoned, "when things got rough, I got down on my knees. The Lord delivered me."

"That's right," someone said.
"He's still in the business of saving souls," the pastor exclaimed. Then he started singing "Amazing Grace," and most of his parishioners joined in loudly, on key, as if they'd grown up singing in church.

Garcia, Lloyd Williams, and another city worker, each of whom has experienced grace in one form or another, were watching from several yards away. The police had departed. Garcia radioed her contact at the nearby shelter. "No more beds," she announced.

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