It's Payback Time

Eleven years after the ACLU sued the City of Miami for harassing homeless citizens, the plaintiffs will get their cash

A lot has changed since the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) embarked on a legal jihad against the City of Miami on behalf of 5000 vagrants in 1988. Senior U.S. District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins, whose ruling in Pottinger v. Miami created a national stir, has died. So have two ACLU attorneys, Rodney Thaxton and Maurice Rosen. Lead plaintiffs Michael Pottinger and Berry Young have disappeared. Ronald Sippio, Apryl Jenkins, and Ronnie Houston have escaped crack addiction and life on the street. Veda Mobley kicked her habit, but recently relapsed.

The case established an important precedent: Cops have no right to arrest people just because they are homeless. It also helped convince county voters to approve a tax that now funds a broad range of social services.

In November, finally, comes the coup de grâce. The city will send out $1500 checks to more than 200 plaintiffs who have proved police violated their civil rights. And that's not all. Because Miami agreed to set aside $600,000 as part of the 1998 settlement, as much as $400,000 of the total will now be available for homeless people. It's unclear how that cash will be distributed. "What's envisioned is that the money would go toward first month, last month, and security deposits on apartments for the homeless, or vocational training," says ACLU attorney Ben Waxman. "Services that will help homeless people lift themselves out of homelessness."

In the early Eighties, Miami police routinely rousted people camped in public places, jailed them, destroyed their possessions, and released them to an even more wretched existence. Police memoranda made public after the ACLU lawsuit revealed officers had termed the practice "vagrant control" and "extraction of undesirables." The paperwork also showed that officers referred to the squad that cracked down on the homeless as "bum busters."

Ronald Sippio, a heavyset man with an oval face and neat mustache, remembers the city's tactics well. Back in 1988 he was living on the Slab, a stretch of sidewalk in downtown Miami under the I-95 overpass at North Miami Avenue and Eleventh Street. The place wasn't exactly comfortable or safe, but it was a refuge for 30 to 50 of the toughest homeless men in town. Like Sippio, most Slab inhabitants were hardened by years on the street. The majority was also addicted to crack or alcohol. Police arrested Sippio eleven times between 1988 and 1992. Most of the collars, he says, were unjustified. At least three were for cocaine possession.

"One night in 1988 the police were looking for a guy," Sippio recounts. "At the time there were about twenty homeless people lying down on the Slab. For some reason the police tried to convince me I was the guy they were looking for. I had no clue what they were talking about. These people lying down said the guy [whom the officers were chasing] just ran through here, but [the police] told 'em to shut up."

Sippio was eventually handcuffed and seated in the back of a squad car. He says his legs were halfway out the door. "This officer came and tried to slam the door on me," he remembers. "He said I tried to jam the door, so the foolishness started there." The officers told Sippio they didn't want the dog excrement on the bottom of his shoe to ruin the squad car's carpet. So the homeless man scraped off the feces with his hand and plastered it on a cop's chest. "He called for backup and before I knew it they were kneeing me on the ground."

Around the same time, Ronnie Houston was living in Bicentennial Park. He'd been there for about three years when Miami officers began repeatedly charging him with vagrancy, loitering, and resisting arrest. "They would just make things up," he protests. During the following year, Houston says, authorities took him to the station so many times he lost count. Each time he was discharged after a few hours or days. And each time Houston returned to the park to find his personal belongings, including photos, either missing or burned. "A lot of the things were of sentimental value," he says. "They were the kinds of things you can't put a price tag on."

Between 1986 and 1993, Apryl Jenkins lived in a vacant lot on NE 78th Street and Second Avenue. Police arrested her seven times. "It was one of their routine stops," she says. While the charges ranged from trespassing to cocaine possession, Jenkins contends she was routinely harassed and her property destroyed. "They would just wipe everything out," she says. "That would cause me to have to start accumulating clothes all over again." Once an officer even took her wallet, she claims. "He told me to leave and not to let him see me again that day," Jenkins says. "I remember just walking down the street and crying; it was so humiliating."

Veda Mobley was living in a car that she parked just off Biscayne Boulevard when she was arrested in the early Nineties. Then the city towed the vehicle with Mobley's belongings still inside. "They wouldn't even let me get my stuff," she complains.

After the ACLU presented evidence of these cases and others like them, Judge C. Clyde Atkins issued his landmark 1992 ruling. The city had violated homeless people's constitutional rights. Authorities should halt minor arrests related to homelessness and create "safe zones" for street people. The city appealed the decision and adopted a hands-off policy toward the homeless. Although deliberations were slow, the lawsuit proved to be an unprecedented catalyst for change. In 1993 county voters approved a one percent restaurant tax to support homeless programs, the first dedicated source of funding for such services in the nation. As a result the county established a homeless trust to manage a system of care, including shelters for the indigent.

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