Miami police officers bid good morning to downtown's homeless
Steve Satterwhite

Finally a Solution to the Homeless Problem

On a Tuesday night in January, a Coral Gables police officer stopped his patrol car at the corner of Douglas Road and SW Eighth Street, just at the edge of the Gables city limits. The back door of his car opened and a middle-age man with matted hair and grubby sneakers emerged. "It looked like he hadn't showered in days," recounts an employee of the Miami Homeless Assistance Program, which aides the city's homeless population. The employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he was driving behind the police officer at the time and watched as the apparently destitute man began walking east on Eighth Street, toward downtown Miami. The police officer headed back to Coral Gables.

For several years homeless advocates, along with downtown property owners and police officers, have complained about "homeless dumping." They claim police from other municipalities round up the homeless from their streets and drop them off in Miami. "It has a negative impact on the downtown business community," complains Josie Legido Correa, executive director of the Downtown Miami Partnership, a nonprofit organization that represents more than 200 business and property owners. "Once they're dumped here, they become part of our homeless population. Many homeless commit petty crimes, and it has an effect on the perception of the community. People associate downtown with the homeless."

Sgt. Gene Kowalski has been working the streets of downtown for most of his twenty years as a cop. He heads the Miami Police Department's homeless detail and the downtown bicycle squad. According to Kowalski his men periodically come across homeless people downtown who claim that officers from other police departments dropped them off near or within Miami city limits. "There are so many of them and in such deplorable conditions," says Kowalski as he pulls his squad car into the McCormick Building parking lot at 111 SW Third St. A police van is parked here to deter homeless people from bathing in a fountain on the property.

Downtown Miami looks like a ghost town on this morning before daybreak. The homeless are in deep slumber, under overpasses and tucked into storefronts, as Kowalski's men prepare to awaken them and offer assistance. "Lately we've gotten a lot of homeless from other cities. And why not? Here they get fed three times a day," says the 39-year-old Kowalski, referring to so-called street feeders, church groups that regularly serve meals to the homeless. "No one wants to admit there's a homeless problem, but they're all over the place. At 3:00 a.m. it's like Dawn of the Dead over here. They're everywhere."

"We've had issues with Coral Gables police as well as with Miami-Dade police," says Miami police Maj. John Buhrmaster. "We've also been told by employees at [downtown's Homeless Assistance Center] that cops from other departments have been attempting to drop off their homeless there." (The campuslike Homeless Assistance Center, or HAC, is a 350-bed facility operated by the nonprofit Community Partnership for Homeless. It is open only to homeless denizens of downtown Miami and Overtown, a restriction demanded by the city before the HAC was allowed to be built at 1550 N. Miami Ave. A second HAC operated by the Community Partnership for Homeless, this one in Homestead, is open only to homeless from South Miami-Dade.)

That Buhrmaster has had issues with the Coral Gables Police Department is news to Chief James Skinner. "Those issues have never been brought to my attention," he says, adding that homeless dumping is not permitted in his department. Regarding the alleged incident earlier this year near SW Eighth Street, the Gables chief is skeptical. "Without a tag number or a time and date of the occurrence, we can't even investigate it," he protests. "For all we know the officer could have been dropping off a stranded motorist."

Fred Fernandez, administrator of Miami's Upper Eastside Neighborhood Enhancement Team, says he periodically encounters clusters of homeless people near the 79th Street Causeway who claim that Miami Beach police officers drove them across the causeway and dropped them on the Miami side.

Miami Beach police Capt. Casey Conwell scoffs at the notion. "Maybe in the early Seventies," he says, "but not today."

During her tenure as a Key Biscayne police officer, Jackie Rojas claims, she was ordered by her superiors to transport the key's homeless over the bridges and deposit them in Miami. "We were told to take them to the toll plaza, which was City of Miami jurisdiction," says Rojas, who was fired last year by police Chief Michael Flaherty. (Rojas is suing the department for reinstatement. Flaherty did not respond to calls for comment.)

Homeless dumping, if consensual, is not illegal, but it can be a form of illegal harassment if officers force the homeless out of their jurisdictions. "It's tantamount to being arrested for being homeless," says Benjamin Waxman, an attorney who spearheaded a successful federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the City of Miami. "You'd have to question the basis for detaining and removing the homeless person to begin with," Waxman continues. "If they're just getting dropped off with no better connection to the provision of services than they had to begin with, that's probably not what they were expecting." Waxman does warn, however, that though Miami officials have complained about homeless dumping by surrounding municipalities, no firm evidence has been provided. "What it speaks to," he says, "is that there needs to be better countywide coordination in providing services for the homeless."

That coordination already exists, notes Hilda Fernandez, executive director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, but she concedes some police officers may not be aware of all the available resources: "If [dumping] happens, all I can hope is that the police officers who are doing it are doing it because they don't know any better. All they have to do is call an outreach team."

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. The county commission then created the Homeless Trust as a quasi-governmental agency to administer those and other funds for programs throughout Miami-Dade. Among those programs are "outreach teams" that provide assessment, referrals, and placement for homeless people. Camillus House South Dade covers all areas south of Kendall Drive, Douglas Gardens Community Mental Health Center serves Miami Beach, the Miami-Dade Department of Human Services provides outreach north of Kendall Drive, and the Miami Homeless Assistance Program handles the City of Miami.

The Homeless Trust, Fernandez says, is on a crusade to educate police departments throughout the county about the outreach teams and the services they provide in their geographical areas. Still Sergeant Kowalski and others believe the City of Miami will remain a target for homeless dumping, thanks to a concentration of services available for people in distress.

Indeed within Miami's city limits are eight emergency-housing facilities. Of the 90 homeless programs providing transitional and permanent housing throughout the county, about 20 are located in the city. In addition there are the various soup kitchens and independent street feeders in the downtown area. As one frustrated Miami police lieutenant puts it: "The City of Miami has become the dumping ground for the homeless and the unwanted. We need another homeless assistance center outside the City of Miami. Is the county going to build one in Coral Gables? How about in Aventura? They won't go there. It's a political issue that city managers and commissioners need to resolve."


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