In a Doral hotel room, Michael Hamilton leans his cane against a mattress and clambers onto a bed to ease the pain in his legs. It's been a chaotic week for the 70-year-old Liberty City resident, and all he wants is rest.
Hamilton spent two days last week sleeping alongside the wreckage of his family's longtime home, which the City of Miami deemed an unsafe structure and ordered demolished, as first reported by the Miami Herald . Neighbors came to his aid and raised money to book him into a Hampton Inn.
Yesterday, he met with his attorney, David Winker, in the hotel lobby for a conference call with several city leaders. The officials offered him a variety of services meant for the homeless, including vocational training and rehabilitation for substance abuse. Hamilton bristled.
"I'm not living under a bridge," he told them.
Hamilton used to work in TV and radio. He's retired and receives Social Security benefits. He says he's not addicted to drugs or alcohol. And he had a roof over his head — a home full of family photos and mementos from his father's service in World War II now turned to rubble and dust.
"I wasn't homeless until they made me homeless," Hamilton tells New Times. "Now they want to offer me homeless services."
Hamilton didn't own the house where he was living. Before his mother died in 2016, she signed over the deed to Hamilton's cousin, Richard Anderson, who lives in Gainesville. Hamilton says Anderson cared for his mother after she was injured in a car accident during a visit to Gainesville to see family. The City of Miami building department sent notices to Anderson at a P.O. box, and one of them was returned unopened, according to the Herald. Because Anderson's name is on the deed, Hamilton has no legal rights over the home where he grew up.
New Times called and left text messages for Anderson this week but was unable to reach him.
The city left a ten-day notice to vacate the home on August 18. The Herald reported that the house had been on the building department's radar since last year because it had fire damage, broken windows, missing doors, and no running water or electricity.
The demolition crew came two days early, on August 26.
Despite Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' eviction moratorium and the ongoing state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, the City of Miami put Hamilton on the street. Today, the city is supposed to relocate him to a different hotel for a two-week quarantine. Where he'll go from there is uncertain.
Winker says the house was wrongfully demolished, and he believes the city didn't follow proper procedures. But right now, he's focused on getting help for Hamilton.
"Mr. Hamilton is not homeless because he has a drug or a mental-health problem. He is homeless because the city wrongfully demolished his house," Winker says. "The fact that this happened in the middle of the pandemic, when the CDC, Governor DeSantis, and Mayor Carlos Giménez have prohibited evictions because of the negative public-health and societal repercussions, makes it all the more complicated."
In his hotel room, Hamilton charges his phone and watches whatever's on TV — "sci-fi and futuristic things" and movies he hadn't known existed. He sleeps a lot. He eats meals generous strangers have delivered to him. Yesterday's lunch was rice, beans, and steak. He says he's grateful for the help he's received and angry that the home he and his family lived in for decades is gone.
"I'm trying to take it all in philosophically," he says.
Hamilton's body hurts not just from sleeping in the yard after the demolition, but also from his attempts to salvage what he could from the rubble. He didn't have enough time to pack up everything he wanted.
"It was such a rush," he says.
He gathered some clothes, documents, and photo albums. His birth certificate is folded and tucked inside a hardcover copy of The American Journey of Barack Obama. A black-and-white photo shows Hamilton, his mother Gussie, his father Malachi, and his brother Bernard posing during a large wedding celebration in their home. He flips through photos of smiling faces he can't name and says he wishes he could have saved a framed photo of his dad in his U.S. Army uniform. Hamilton has cousins in Miami and Gainesville, but he's the only living member of his immediate family. His brother and father died before his mother's death in 2016.
Although city officials claim they were unaware that anyone was living in the house, Hamilton has lived there for almost his entire life.
Born in Winter Park in 1950, he moved around the northern part of the state with his family before they eventually settled in Liberty City in 1963, when he was 13 years old.
As a teenager, Hamilton attended Miami Jackson Senior High in Allapattah. His mother got him classical guitar lessons one year, and from then on, he wanted to be a musician. He dreamed of starting a band with the only woman he ever loved, who played saxophone in high school.
He honed his musical skills into his late teens, when he got a summer job as a production assistant for a PBS show. He wasn't in front of the microphone, but he was enthralled by the inner workings of radio and TV. As he recalls the details of switchboard operation and sound-system technology, it's almost as if he's back in the studio, running his hands along the dials as he talks.
"I had a lot of fun," he says.
Hamilton wasn't afraid to perform in front of others. In high school, he was inducted into the National Forensic League, a precursor to the National Speech and Debate Association. He keeps his certificate from the league, one of the few possessions he was able to take with him when the city evicted him, tucked into the same book that holds his birth certificate.
After a freak football accident put an end to his classical guitar career before it began — he sliced his hand on a fence, unknowingly severing several tendons — he went to school for electrical engineering and earned a third-class license for radio operation.
Tragedy struck again when Hamilton was 24. Hamilton and his family were involved in a car accident when he fell asleep at the wheel. His younger brother Bernard died in the crash.
Hamilton eventually moved back home without finishing college, and the love of his life left him.
In the decades since Hamilton moved back to Liberty City, there have been two fires in the house. Both were minor, he says, though the second one broke the windows and created the damage that may have led the city to condemn the structure.
By the time of the second fire, Hamilton's mother was moving to Gainesville to be with other family members and to seek treatment for injuries from the car accident. Hamilton says she had homeowner's insurance on the house, but the payments came due while she was in and out of treatment, so the money never came through and the house was never fully repaired.
Because he never finished his engineering degree, Hamilton likes to say he must be the dumbest person in the world. But his neighbors say he's one of the smartest men they know. When the city shut off his utilities after the second fire (for reasons he's unsure of), he wired solar panels in his yard to power his appliances. He rigged up a cistern to collect rainwater. He was off the grid and self-sufficient.
When the city came knocking on Hamilton's door two days ahead of schedule, he barely had time to throw whatever he could into a duffel bag: a Bible, a few photo albums, his National Forensic League and birth certificates, and some packs of instant teriyaki chicken.
"I had to pack 60 years' worth of memories and family mementos in five minutes," he says.
He couldn't salvage everything. Photos of his father in his World War II army uniform, cabinets his father, an amateur carpenter, built, and other memorabilia were crushed.
When he was left outside with no family around to help, he chose to sleep on the lawn. He didn't knock on any neighbors' doors for assistance or shelter.
"I didn't want to bother anyone," he explains.
Now, the man who has always been uncomfortable asking others for help, awaits whatever aid the city can provide. All he wants is a decent place to rest in his old age. He says he's more angry than sad that after so many years, someone made his family home disappear.
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