The morning of April 17, Wilbur Cauley left all of his belongings in their usual place: stacked by a fence under the I-395 overpass at NW First Court and 13th Street. It was in the middle of a four-block area where about 30 homeless Miamians live. That morning, Cauley, an Army veteran in his late 50s who served three years in Germany, went to a nearby store for a soda. When he returned, he says, a man in a dark-green shirt was kicking bags that contained Cauley's birth certificate, driver's license, clothes, bedding, and even the food he keeps on hand to avoid diabetic shock.
"I said, 'Hey, what are you doing?' and I tried to get my stuff," Cauley recalls. "But the guy wouldn't let me get anything. He grabbed my arm and then he took all my stuff... They threw it all away. They took everything I have."
Cauley's version of events is supported by photos, video footage, and testimony from a half-dozen eyewitnesses, including Benji Waxman, a Miami lawyer and volunteer at the American Civil Liberties Union, and David Peery, a local activist who has experienced homelessness himself. Waxman and Peery have been involved in homelessness advocacy in Miami for years, and they say tensions between the city and locals have spiked in recent months.
Cauley’s antagonist was a member of the Miami Homeless Assistance Program, a group also known as "green shirts” because of their signature forest-green uniforms. The program, staffed partially by former homeless men and women, is tasked with providing aid and services to the area's homeless population. Over the years, the green shirts have been both praised for their hard work and criticized for harassing and even stealing from the very people they are supposed to help.
The historic class-action lawsuit was filed in 1988 by a group of 6,000 homeless people against the City of Miami. The plaintiffs, then led by a man named Michael Pottinger, and now by Peery, argued the city had criminalized homelessness by prosecuting people for misdemeanors they could not avoid committing — such as sleeping, bathing, or building a fire for warmth. “You cannot make a person an outlaw just because they don’t have a home,” Peery says.
When the case was settled a decade later, the judge set in place certain agreements between the City of Miami and the homeless population. Homeless individuals are now protected under the Pottinger agreement from being arrested for performing necessary, life-sustaining activities in public. Instead, the city must offer shelter and services before evacuating certain areas.
The decision includes another key stipulation: City officials may not seize or damage the belongings of homeless people unless they pose an obvious threat to public health. But Cauley, Waxman, and Peery say that’s exactly what the green shirts were doing April 17.
The city has a different story. “All property and people are treated with dignity and respect,” says Eugene Ramirez, director of communications for the City of Miami. “If our outreach staff finds any documents in clean-up areas, they collect them and bring them to the office for safekeeping. They leave a notice where the property is found so people can come collect their items.”
Ron Book, who runs the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, says the county is working with the City of Miami to reduce homelessness. “Our goal is to be as aggressive as we can to encourage people to take housing,” Book says. “I am aware that there have been street cleanings to try to clear the streets.”
Many green shirts go to great lengths to ensure the well-being of their clients — Ramirez claims they collect items to protect them from damage during street cleaning. But Cauley responds that some of the outreach personnel go out of their way to harass the homeless community, such as conducting street cleanings at ungodly hours (as early as 3 a.m.), waking residents while they sleep, and forcing people out of public areas without offering another place to go.
“It’s total harassment,” he says. “Even if you’re sitting on the curb and nothing is behind you, they’ll say you’re blocking the sidewalk. You have to sit up against the fence like you’re in the military or something.”
So what exactly happened the morning of April 17? According to Waxman, six green shirts arrived in the area around 8:30 a.m. They came with several police officers, a handful of Neighborhood Enhancement Team members, and a parade of cleaning vehicles: a dump truck, a water pressure cleaner, three or four pickup trucks, and a street sweeper. The group stood around for a while, surveying the scene, and about an hour later, one of the green shirts announced the cleanup would begin.
"He walked up the middle of NW 1st Court and loudly ordered everyone to move their possessions immediately," Peery wrote in a complaint letter to the city. "When they walked up to Wilbur Cauley's possessions — bedding, clothes, a backpack and sheets that were stacked neatly against a fence — the large male Greenshirt shouted ‘Okay, now we're going to throw your shit away!’”
Peery filmed the incident on his phone. The video shows the green shirt moving Cauley’s possessions into a pile in the middle of the sidewalk and throwing other items on top. A woman on the sidewalk screams at the official and tells him to stop stealing her things. The man ignores her — he kicks and throws more stuff onto the pile. Only one person in the video is able to retrieve something from the pile. Others photos shows the same green shirt standing over and blocking Cauley’s stuff.
In all, Cauley lost every piece of identification he had, including his veteran bus card and his social security card. Losing your ID is always a nightmare, but it’s especially horrible if you’re homeless. Any shelter he might visit or any job he might apply for requires ID.
Peery says these regular cleanups are a less-than-subtle way of herding homeless people away from popular congregating spots.
“The campaign is working,” Peery says. “I went down to Lot 16 the other day, and no one was there.” Lot 16 is an area south of the Main Library and east of the Miami River, where some 50 or 60 homeless people used to live. After the city began conducting regular street cleanings, Peery says, everyone relocated. “And it’s happening here too. You see today, people have already left.”
The Pottinger settlement did leave in place a mediation clause — where plaintiffs can request meetings with the city over perceived violations of the agreement. Peery and Waxman requested a mediation, and one was scheduled for the morning of April 24. There is no report yet on the outcome.
“I’m hoping to convince the mediator of three things,” Peery says. “Number one, to tell the city to please stop. Number two, to compensate people for all the possessions they have lost. And number three, to please guarantee this won’t happen again.”