By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
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Francis O'Keefe is educated, erudite, and eloquent. He also has been homeless for the past twenty years. Recently the gray-haired man with questioning blue eyes has found refuge in a park that surrounds the West Miami-Dade Regional Library in Westchester. The library regulars seem to like O'Keefe, who is sober, well-mannered, and a whiz with the computer.
Perhaps it was inevitable, though, that he would offend people who believe it's wrong to sleep on park benches. People like County Commissioner Javier Souto. The library, located on Coral Way at SW 94th Avenue, is in Souto's district. The commissioner holds regular meetings with his constituents there.
Souto has long been known for his outspoken antipathy toward loiterers and vagabonds. According to a 1994 El Nuevo Heraldarticle, he once shocked county bureaucrats by declaring, "The more [homeless people] we have in jail the better." Now, librarians and others believe, Souto has unfairly targeted O'Keefe. A bizarre incident this past July that resulted in the homeless man's arrest and jailing fueled their suspicions.
What would a powerful commissioner want with a mousy 60-year-old homeless guy?
Souto denies he has anything personal against O'Keefe. He says he just wants to discourage homeless people from bothering taxpaying citizens. He acknowledges that, well yes, he does know O'Keefe. "I've seen him around the library, and going around on his bicycle picking up cigarette butts," Souto muses. "I've seen him in shopping centers. I don't know what he does for a living. I don't know where he hides, but I do know we passed a tax for [a homeless program]. We have two or three good places for [homeless people] and I think they should be in those places."
O'Keefe doesn't think he should be in a shelter. He isn't an alcoholic or a drug abuser, and he is mystified about why countless employers have rejected his applications. At times, however, he makes deluded statements and refers to patently unreal scenarios. And he simply ignores friends' and social workers' occasional challenges to these delusions. Overall, though, O'Keefe gets by pretty well. "Everywhere he goes he makes friends," says Elena Prieto, a library employee who has become his chief advocate. "And the story is always the same: 'Oh, how nice Francis is; how educated.'"
Asked about his background, O'Keefe presents a recently acquired copy of his birth certificate that shows he was born in Havana in 1939 to a Cuban mother and an American father. He immigrated to the United States in 1960; both parents, he says, died before the 1959 communist revolution. For several years O'Keefe lived with a relative in southern California. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1963 to 1965, according to a certification of military service that he keeps. In 1972 he earned a master's degree in Latin-American Studies from UCLA. (The university verifies he matriculated there.) He says he worked as a draftsman during and after his time in school, but lost his job in 1975.
O'Keefe's account of the past 24 years is sketchier. He says he wandered East, taking refuge in churches and eating donated meals before arriving in South Florida in 1987. Before he found the west Miami-Dade library in 1996, he slept in the street near a Farm Store, "which provided me with milk." The library, with its computers and books, gives succor to O'Keefe, who spends hours surfing the Web and sending and receiving e-mails. Somehow he has developed a highbrow British accent. "He never bothers anybody and in fact I have seen him helping out many confused people on the computer," offers Miguel, a transient who often sleeps in his truck in the library parking lot (and who declines to give his last name).
"I was always impressed with his intelligence," adds Claire Jacobson, a woman who met O'Keefe at Matheson Hammock Park and dedicated herself to helping him. She is one of the small but loyal collection of people who passionately believe O'Keefe is an innocent victim of a heartless politician. Jacobson and the others trace the beginning of O'Keefe's troubles to this past February, when the county initiated "la limpieza de los homeless" (the homeless cleanup). They contend Souto ordered it.
The commissioner doesn't deny he takes a hands-on approach to keeping his district neat and orderly. He claims he has heard disgusting stories about homeless men bathing in library bathrooms, sometimes in front of children. But he says he didn't issue any specific anti-homeless or anti-O'Keefe mandate. "They can blame the pope, President Clinton, or humanity in general," Souto retorts. "But when the neighbors complain, you bet I'm going to call the [Miami-Dade County] Homeless Trust. The whole area is very well patrolled by the police and the Homeless Trust, and that's what we pay tax for."
Enrique Strachn worked as a security guard at the library for two and a half years until this past May, when he was transferred. He relates that Souto came by in early February and noticed Miguel (the truck-dweller) in the parking lot, checking his vehicle's radiator fluid. "The commissioner came up to me and said, 'These homeless people are running off the public,'" Strachn recalls. "'If the people are scared, they won't come back, and the library will have to close.' Then [Souto] said, 'Don't say anything about this,' and he left. After about fifteen minutes, he sent over a police car."
Miguel asserts the police officer was annoyed to have been called out for such an insignificant problem. "He didn't even get out of the car," Miguel says. "He just said, 'Is that all? As long as you're not working as a mechanic you can do whatever you need to do in the parking lot.' And he drove off. But from that day on, the homeless in this park were persecuted."
(Souto doesn't recall such an incident, and he says he never calls police with complaints about homeless people. The Miami-Dade Police Department has not received any directive to crack down on homeless people, adds Det. Juan Castillo.)
Outreach teams from the county's Department of Human Services began visiting the library, trying to convince the homeless men to move to shelters; although most of the park's denizens accepted, O'Keefe declined the offer. Worse, O'Keefe claims in mid-February a police officer mid-February threatened him with arrest if he didn't "leave the library forever." This scared him so badly he rode his bike to Broward County, where he stayed for several days before returning to the library. Then O'Keefe began typing a series of e-mails to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "I add that the commissioner of the 10th District, Javier Souto, is the one giving orders against us," he wrote in one message. "I live in great worry, threatened by a police that is not in agreement with liberty, claiming I am not a citizen, not a human, different, and that I can be treated differently, that they can dispose of me as they desire, which is what tyrants do."
On March 4 the ACLU notified O'Keefe that his complaint had been referred to the Miami office for investigation. So far, according to ACLU attorney Andrew Kayton, no decision has been made as to whether to pursue the case.
About two months later, Souto approached the spot behind the library where O'Keefe's belongings were stashed, Elena Prieto claims. "He walked up to where Francis's things were, looked, and walked away," Prieto says. "Then one day Francis found that everything had been destroyed. It was some county workers. The social workers told me it was Souto's orders." (Souto denies the claim.)
This past July 29, the day Miami-Dade residents voted on whether to adopt a penny tax to fund public transportation, proponents of the measure paid O'Keefe $75 to stand outside Coral Park Senior High and distribute flyers. A little after 5:00 p.m., as O'Keefe recalls it, "a small red car came and I went to hand a leaflet." Instead he saw "a slightly obese man on the passenger side. He had a camera in his hand with a grin on his face. He got out of the car and stepped back, holding the camera up, and I asked him, 'Please don't photograph me.' But he didn't stop, so I put my arm up and shoved the camera away. Then I heard a voice from inside the car -- it turned out to be Souto -- shouting, 'Assault and battery! Assault and battery!' Over and over."
The slightly obese man was Souto's chief of staff, Bernardo Escobar. His story differs from O'Keefe's mainly in his description of the timing and degree of force used. "[O'Keefe] swung with a closed fist, striking the camera, which subsequently struck [Escobar] in the eye," notes a police report that lists Souto as a witness. "[Escobar] stated his eye bothered him but no injury was observed."
Escobar recalls that O'Keefe made his plea to stop snapping pictures and threw the punch at the same moment. Thus the chief of staff had no chance to retreat or defend himself. Police arrested O'Keefe and booked him into Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where he remained for almost a month.
About two weeks after the arrest, Prieto discovered O'Keefe's whereabouts and began visiting him; she delivered encouraging notes from three of O'Keefe's friends at the library. "The days seem different without you at the library," wrote one employee. "We miss you a lot."
O'Keefe spoke with a public defender for the first time at an August 17 hearing before Circuit Court Judge Steve Leifman. With the attorney's help, O'Keefe pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge. Leifman ordered him to pay a $150 fine, attend anger-control classes, and avoid coming within 200 yards of Escobar. Although the chief of staff asked Leifman to order O'Keefe not to return to the west Miami-Dade library, the judge denied that request. The library after all is a public place.
A question remains: Why was Escobar photographing O'Keefe? The July 29 police report states that Souto and Escobar had come to Coral Park Senior High to vote. But neither lives in that precinct. Escobar says he and his boss (an opponent of the proposed tax, which was rejected) drove to every precinct in Souto's district and took several pictures. "[O'Keefe] was campaigning on an issue and standing on public property, and I took a picture of a public person," Escobar explains. "That's perfectly legal."
Meanwhile O'Keefe has begun the anger-control classes. He doesn't know whether he will be able to raise $150 for the fine. He laments: "I am in terrible trouble." He continues to hope the ACLU will take up his cause. O'Keefe probably has no recourse for the destruction of his belongings, according to Benjamin Waxman, one of the attorneys who handle cases for the ACLU.
Neither the gentle prodding of the homeless outreach workers nor jail time have changed O'Keefe's situation or outlook. "From the day he was arrested until the day of his trial," observes an angry Elena Prieto, "nobody asked if this man was mentally competent. No one helped him get in touch with a friend. No one cared enough to ask whether slapping this punishment on him was appropriate."