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.

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.

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.

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.

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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