Uncle Luke: Virginia Key Homeless Camp Plan Is a Travesty

Undated photo, circa 1950s, of a sign along the Rickenbacker Causeway connecting the Miami mainland to Virginia Key
Photo via Collaborative Archive From the African Diaspora, University of Miami
Undated photo, circa 1950s, of a sign along the Rickenbacker Causeway connecting the Miami mainland to Virginia Key
In the City of Miami, governing like it's a banana republic never goes out of style.

Last Thursday, July 29, droves of residents and activists left Miami City Hall believing they had thwarted a poorly conceived plan to create a "homeless transition camp" on a historic spot.

Of five potential sites proposed by city staff, the preferred location was Virginia Key, the only place in Miami-Dade County where Black people could enjoy a swim during the segregation era.

Today, Black people from all over the county still frequent Virginia Key Beach, not only because of its historical significance but also because it provides them with a safe place to enjoy Miami’s balmy weather.

Now some city leaders and staffers want to disrupt things by turning part of Virginia Key into a homeless shelter.

Last week, Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla was part of the 3-2 majority that voted against the pilot program but then abruptly reversed course, successfully requesting a do-over and then joining colleagues Joe Carollo and Christine King in voting to approve it. By then, most of the people who'd spoken out in opposition to warehousing homeless people on a government-run site hidden from public view had left city hall.

King’s stamp of approval came as a surprise, given that she’s the city’s only Black elected official, and one whose District 5 includes Miami’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. The Virginia Key plan is absolutely asinine and a slap in the face. The city would never propose doing something like this in the middle of SW Eighth Street in Little Havana.

In an email, King told me the encampment will be more than a mile away from the historically designated beach area, on a city-owned site that hasn’t been used in more than ten years. She insisted her support is about making sure the proposed camp doesn’t end up in Overtown or Liberty City, two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and ones where Black people live.

King said opponents are just mad that the proposed site is near Key Biscayne, one of the richest enclaves in Miami-Dade County. "The issue of homelessness received a few head shakes and sad looks as long as it was in the poorest neighborhoods, where Black people live," King said. "But now that the encampment is proposed to be situated in an affluent area, there is explicit outrage. The hypocrisy!"

She has a valid point. But turning Virginia Key into a homeless dumping ground is just as wrong, even if the site is supposedly a safe distance away from a historic area that Black families enjoy, day in and day out. People of color already had to put up with the city and county placing a municipal garbage dump and a sewage treatment facility on Virginia Key. It's also used as a staging area for disposing of hurricane debris and dredging debris from the Port of Miami.

During a conversation in my Twitter space, Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who voted against the pilot program, said the homeless encampment will be run like a concentration camp. It'll be an enclosed space with a tall fence and only one way in and one way out, Russell said. A city trolley will pick up homeless people and drop them off at the front gate with no social services in place to help them, Russell explained.

Who knows — this proposal could well be a bait and switch to rezone part of Virginia Key for residential development. Once the city changes the zoning, don’t be surprised if a developer pops up with an offer to build a homeless shelter in Homestead in exchange for building “workforce housing” apartments on Virginia Key, which is prime waterfront land.

For Black people, Virginia Key is a storied beach. For everyone else, Virginia Key is a trash can. It’s time to treat the island as what it is: a local treasure.