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Homeless People Say City Workers Are Stealing Their Stuff

Rafael Aguiar (left), who is homeless, was the first of dozens to allege rampant property theft by green shirts.
Rafael Aguiar (left), who is homeless, was the first of dozens to allege rampant property theft by green shirts.
Andre Silva

Kevin Henderson had a rude awakening early the morning of July 2, as if sleeping on the sidewalk adjacent to the Highland Professional Building on NW 18th Street wasn't bad enough. The building is a frequent bed-down spot for the homeless because of its wide overhang, which protects them from the rain, and it had been a dreary, wet night.

"When I wake up, I see bags on top of bags piled up. They were throwing people's stuff on the truck," Henderson recalls, his version of events supported by several fellow homeless people who also say they were victimized.

"It was the green shirts," Henderson says.

The "green shirts" are a division of more than 40 workers, most formerly homeless themselves, who are employed by Miami's Homeless Assistance Program (MHAP) and tasked with offering services and shelter.

Henderson says that incident was the third time the city workers had stolen his stuff. This time around, he says, they took "six pairs of shoes, all my clothes, they got my food stamp card, my ID, my social security card, my prison ID, and they got $250 in cash. They didn't even bother to go through the stuff to see what was important to me."

In interviews conducted over the past six months, dozens of homeless people living in downtown Miami have complained about rampant property theft by city employees. It's just the latest insult in what has been a hostile year for the city's most marginalized population. In April, city officials, prompted by business owners who blame the presence of homeless people for economic woes, proposed rolling back the few basic protections afforded to the homeless -- protections they had fought more than a decade to get. If a judge OKs the rollbacks this month, it will be like going back in time to a much darker age.

Dozens of homeless people around the city say they've been victimized by green shirts; half a dozen say they were hassled in the same incident that Henderson describes. Vicki Perez, who only months earlier had been living in her own Miami condo, recalls the same rainy morning. She managed to get her suitcase returned before the green shirts drove off, but it wasn't without a fight.

"They started taking our things, our belongings, and throwing [them] onto the truck. They took my carrier, and that's when I got up and got really upset," she recalls. "They were very rude. They were horrible. I don't think we should be treated that way because we're living out in the streets."

A week after the alleged July thefts, Gene Evans was sweeping the sidewalk -- his daily chore -- across from "The Sisters" with half a broom that had snapped in two. He hunched over as his sweaty hands gripped the splintered handle and sent dirt streetward. "The Sisters" is what homeless folks call the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns that feeds the homeless six days a week from a facility on NW 17th Street. Established in Miami some 30 years ago by Mother Teresa, the charity itself faced being shut down by the city earlier this year, though the conflict was ultimately resolved.

Once their makeshift sitting room was clean, Gene and a few fellow homeless perched side by side on plastic crates and nodded in affirmation as one after the next recounted a litany of recent abuse by cops and city workers.

A few, such as Jesse Shiggs, recalled the bad old days prior to 1998, when the head of the division that enforced anti-vagrancy laws referred to his crew as "bum busters." Cops would regularly arrest the homeless for no reason or confiscate their belongings. Or worse. In one incident, cops handcuffed residents of a Lummus Park homeless encampment and tossed their possessions -- including personal identification, medicine, clothing, and a Bible -- onto a pile and ignited it into a flaming pyre. Adding to the grinding day-to-day harassment that homeless people had been enduring for decades, that incident sparked the homeless community's desire to fight back.

In 1988, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed Pottinger v. City of Miami on behalf of a homeless man, Michael Pottinger, and about 6,000 other homeless Miami residents. Its intent was to protect the rights of homeless folks to engage in behavior that they can't help but perform in public -- eating, preparing food, sleeping -- 11 categories of behavior in all. The case settled after ten years of winding its way through a complex process of mediations and hearings at various levels of the federal court system.

The settlement dictated that no homeless person's property was to be confiscated -- or, if it was taken in the context of a justified arrest, it was to be kept safe and returned to its owner upon release from jail. Arrests would be permitted only if a homeless person, having engaged in Pottinger-protected misdemeanor activity such as sleeping on a sidewalk, refused an offer of shelter. If no shelter was available, the law stipulated that police wouldn't be allowed to even approach the person in question. Other, more serious offenses, would remain cause for arrest no matter the individual's status as homeless.

But in the past two years, various members of Miami's elite -- including city commissioners, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and the Miami Police Department -- have argued that the homeless are a nuisance and pressed the city to modify the Pottinger settlement. On April 9, commissioners voted unanimously to pursue modifying the settlement.

A highlight of their proposal would be to again grant cops permission to jail homeless people just for being homeless. Along with altering who is protected and what behaviors it protects, the modification includes allowing police to arrest any homeless person simply for refusing shelter three times in a 180-day span. ACLU attorneys agree that such changes would gut the original agreement.

Any changes to the settlement must be approved by the federal courts. Chief U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who ruled the settlement agreement into law 15 years ago, is hearing the current case as well. He has said he seeks to conclude the process and issue a ruling by year's end.

Though nobody disputes that downtown has thrived in the years since the settlement, it's nonetheless being perceived as a roadblock to further growth. "We've come a long way in 15 years to simultaneously improve the plight of the homeless and revitalize downtown," Commission President Marc Sarnoff wrote in a June opinion piece in the Miami Herald. Sarnoff, who's also DDA chairman, added, "It's time to take the next steps to enhance the existing solutions for both the homeless and all the people of Miami."

Marco Antonio Garcia Guerrero, one of the homeless men on 17th Street, calls the plan something else: "the Final Solution to the homeless problem in the City of Miami." The phrase echoes the Nazi term used during the Holocaust. "They treat us like Hitler," he says. Several weeks earlier, he had been briefly jailed for an undisclosed infraction and claims vital anti-psychotic medication was thrown away by the arresting officer.

When Sergio Torres -- MHAP's administrator, who oversees green shirt activity -- was told that homeless people are alleging that green shirts have been stealing their belongings, he first became defensive. "If we don't have a bed, we can't even talk to them," he asserted, referring to the Pottinger stipulation that precludes police and city workers from approaching homeless people when all shelter beds are full.

"Our goal is to get people to shelter," Torres insisted. But pressed on the matter, he also acknowledged that claims of theft by city workers have gone on for more than a decade. "I've heard the same complaints since 1999."

Still, he insisted, "We don't discard any valuables. We find cardboard or blankets that are contaminated. Under Pottinger, a blanket is considered contaminated. We discard that. I don't like to say 'destroy.'"

Benjamin Waxman, lead ACLU attorney in the Pottinger case since its original filing in 1988, disagrees. "Discarding is destroying," says Waxman, adding that "there's no provision [under Pottinger] that says a blanket per se is contaminated.

"If it looks like property that belongs to a homeless person, they can't touch it," Waxman continues. Blankets and even cardboard could be defined as property, he says.

Asked whether he would pursue any investigation into the claims of theft, Torres said, "I can't do anything about it unless I have proof of their allegations. They should call the police."

But the homeless see police as more foe than friend. They say cops are often dismissive of their concerns and sometimes even violate the very rights that Pottinger was established to protect. Tom Petersen, a semiretired judge who sits on the Eleventh Circuit's bench part-time listening to first hearings of misdemeanor complaints, says he sees evidence of that every day.

"I've been doing bond hearings at least two days a week, and I get all of the homeless who have been arrested on Sunday and Monday [on trespass violations]," Petersen says. "My reading of Pottinger is that it was supposed to preclude these kinds of arrests. You have people, especially people of color, being arrested for standing around. It doesn't meet the legal requirements of a trespass. It's a waste of resources.

"I get 20 or 30 a day, and about 85 percent get dismissed," Petersen adds. He categorizes the overwhelming majority of these cases "a total violation of Pottinger."

Victoria Mendez responded on behalf of the city attorney's office: "While the city does not generally comment on pending litigation, we respectfully disagree with Judge Petersen's comments."

While homeless folks across the city await the conclusion of the Pottinger modification hearings, they're concerned that a case being conducted in a penthouse courtroom of a plate-glass architectural gem -- the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Federal Courthouse -- might be too far above their latest, street-level trials for them to be heard.

Just last week, Gene Evans said the thefts by green shirts continue. He recounted a story from one of the 17th Street crowd about a green shirt taking a man's backpack right off his person. The homeless no longer expect that anything will be done about it. "We just want it to be known," Evans said.

Evans also mentioned, for what it's worth, that he has a new broom and he's still sweeping away whatever dirt he can.

Jeff Weinberger is a freelance writer and longtime homeless advocate.

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