The Heart Goes for a Haircut

How to be homeless on Miami Beach

"Where the fuck are you going?" growled a man holding what looked like a pry bar.

"I'm from New Times, the newspaper?"

"You better get the fuck out, shitbird!" yelled another angry voice.

Steve Satterwhite
Bisente Martinez sleeps among the boulders on Watson Island, but not for long
Steve Satterwhite
Bisente Martinez sleeps among the boulders on Watson Island, but not for long

"Writin' a story about the homeless . . ."

"Who's 'homeless,' dipstick? We're nomads! We're bums!"

"And Republicans!" the first guy roared. "Republican tramps!"

"We don't want no milky social worker jive!"

"Get your ass out!"

The first man flung the bar, but he missed.

The Poor Are Always with Us

What really bothers people about the homeless is their reflective quality: "There but for the grace of Visa go I." Every office has its weak links, and it's anthropologically wonderful how the strong links sense, isolate, and try to drive them out, as ruthlessly as any East African baboon troop. In Miami Beach, a community of strong links struggling to redefine itself in the afterglow of its post-fashion bonfire, and scared by a bad recession and the 9/11 fallout (though this winter's season recouped nicely), city government has been moving against the homeless "tactfully," in hopes of making the Beach attractive to -- if not Anna Wintour and Gwyneth Paltrow -- an upper-middle and middle-class visitor and taxpayer base. While retaining enough of a whiff of the pulsing Ingrid Casares/Chris Paciello glamour of its immediate past to keep things "provocative." Like Las Vegas, with its defanged "gangster" theme-park aura.

Thus, last year's campaign to rid Lincoln Road of its squalid performance artists, junk peddlers, and panhandlers, and this year's gradually accelerating moves to get the bums off the Beach (said to have been exacerbated by homeless mocking of early-morning exercise classes at the Tides Hotel). David Dermer, a lawyer and real estate manager as well as mayor, with long-time ties to the business community, is seen as subtly increasing pressure in response to undeclared campaign promises . . . Who needs all these hairy-bottomed people, for instance, squatting, lowering their drawers and straining in the dunes across from Il Villagio on Ocean Drive, where the hapless residents can only stare in horror from their pricey balconies?

"I think you're being unfair to Mayor Dermer," said City Commissioner Matti Herrera Bower recently. "He's not an over-regulator. Look at his record. It was Nancy Liebman who instigated the Lincoln Road measures. I think the mayor believes diversity is important . . . but look at Villagio! What can we do?"

Commissioner Richard Steinberg maintained that Miami Beach "spends about a half-million dollars a year on homeless help," more than communities of comparable size throughout the country. "The idea is to get these folks into the 'continuum of care'" (a social-welfare buzz phrase this year), which includes emergency bed intervention for extreme cases of mental or physical illness, stabilization, therapy, job training and "mainstreaming" -- reintegration into the job market and apartment-owning population. "But the mayor is just continuing a process started in previous administrations," Steinberg warned. "He's certainly not the bogeyman of this issue . . .

"However," he continued, "I would like to say that while offering all possible help to get these unfortunates up and running, we have to consider all our citizens' needs -- including businessmen, hotel and club owners. So [our help takes place] in Miami, not on the Beach, because the cost of beds on the Beach would undercut the amount of aid money available. In Las Vegas, where I was recently, I noticed there were no homeless visible. Now how did they accomplish that, I wonder?"

One solution, Steinberg suggested, are "no-panhandling zones," an innovation Key West is trying and that he is bringing before the commissioners: "Let's face it, there are some areas where that just isn't appropriate." (He declined to say where.)

But the thrust of Steinberg's suggestion certainly raises issues concerning the intent of the old Pottinger ruling on the matters of homeless and constitutional rights. According to Commissioner Saul Gross, the only MIAB politician to vote against the current ludicrous anti-camping ordinance, he's already had to knock down a clause in Anti-Camping that would have allowed the removal of homeless from certain areas "at the discretion of the commission." Gross, while admitting that homelessness poses economic, aesthetic and sometimes criminal problems wherever it crops up, felt this was legally indefensible (so the ordinance passed without the offensive codicil). He also said that selective enforcement of Anti-Camping, such as occurred during the recent Winter Music Conference, "was wrong, if it happened." (Abercrombie & Fitch-style high school and college kids in max-tech Northface tents had gamboled blithely on SoBe, unmolested, while sorry-assed individuals in street-colored rags were brusquely offered the Salvation Army or the slammer [the letter of the Pottinger law], then rousted into "bum vans," as soon as the ordinance passed.) New Times suggested that Anti-Camping used the language of Pottinger -- offering a bed and only busting on refusal -- to defeat Pottinger's spirit; but Gross, probably the smartest commissioner right now, was noncommittal. "Not going near that one," he laughed.

Mayor Dermer, sounding utterly reasonable on these issues, denied that he'd made any pre-election deals with businessmen or hoteliers, or had increased pressure in any way. "We're looking around for real solutions that any mayor might face. Why don't you talk to some other mayors? We have a wonderful and thoroughly professional team in place [a total of three in Homeless Coordination and Neighborhood Services], and we're looking for ways to enhance our homeless care through emergency, then intermediate, then permanent beds and housing, as we do presently . . . What's that? Yes, most of those facilities are across the bay in Miami. No, future help would be where it is now! We have no plans to change . . ."

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