Downtown Miami's no-panhandling zone displaces homeless

Around 4 p.m., I set up shop on a sidewalk corner. I hold a sign with the messily scrawled words Any Help? A McDonald's cup, containing a few quarters I threw in to get the ball rolling, sits at my feet. I'm dressed like an alt-weekly reporter who hasn't done laundry in a while — which is to say, not that different from your average shabby drifter.

Ten minutes pass — but no Samaritans do. Plastic bags skitter down the street like tumbleweeds. The only people who straggle by me are homeless, and they either look right through me or shoot pitying glances.

Finally, one man stops. He has a Kimbo Slice hairdo and wears a grubby basketball jersey with block letters that spell Chicago. He studies me.

Extending a cupped hand, he asks, "Got any change?"

I shake my head apologetically and reply, "Can you help me out?"

The homeless man looks genuinely pained to turn me down. "I'm broke, man," he mutters, patting his jeans pockets as if searching for a spare dime.

It might be the first time in history beggars have resorted to hitting each other up for change. By all accounts, Kimbo and I should have been raking in coins this Monday afternoon. The bigger-than-Bieber Miami Heat will host the Indiana Pacers in a few hours, and thousands of deep-pocketed fans are already jostling for space in the parking lots near American Airlines Arena, once a Shangri-la for beggars.

But as with most things, successful panhandling boils down to location — and I'm angling for change at NW Sixth Street and Third Avenue under I-95, a full mile from the arena. It's as close as I can get without breaking the law. Two weeks ago, Miami commissioners voted unanimously to nearly double the "no-panhandling zone" surrounding the Adrienne Arsht Center and LeBron James's new workplace. Vagrant-seeking cops are prowling the stadium area, a demilitarized zone for the cup-shaking set, like the Gestapo — they made more than 150 arrests before one home game.

The expanded zone is billed as an answer to "fear, harassment, and intimidation which is associated with panhandling." It's supported by the Miami Heat, whose director of security, Bob Hundevadt, compiled reactions from people leaving concerts at the AA Arena before basketball season. Some of the complaints he emailed to the city [all sic]: "Too many bum sleeping on the street it was very scary." "Was not aware of the homeless people in the vicinity of the arena [and] was frightened. Actually ran full speed to the arena." "Miami is a third world city and the abomination known as parking around the Triple A continues to frighten even the most fearless person."

My attempt at panhandling was an experiment of sorts: Where does staying outside of downtown's no-panhandling zone leave a beggar? The answer: the middle of nowhere. And because panhandlers don't traditionally have means for a daily commute to say, Coral Gables, it seems the revised law is a de facto ban on panhandling for the thousands-strong homeless population that for decades has squatted in the downtown area.

There are ethical and constitutional concerns with the no-panhandling zone. Some folks view begging for change in a nonaggressive manner as an extension of free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida's director, Howard Simon, says the city commission "has gone too far and perhaps further than permitted by law." The Miami Coalition for the Homeless's Rita Clark calls the law a "criminalization" of living on the street.

But more generally, isn't there something grossly wrong about sweeping away downtown's poorest, unsightliest residents the second the long-neglected district gets a shiny, new six-foot-eight-inch draw? What are we, Singapore? Or worse, Manhattan?

The mastermind behind the expanded zone is Miami's own Mayor Giuliani lite — Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose "quality of life" crusade has included rolling back Coconut Grove's bar curfew to 3 a.m. and attempting to ban people from giving the homeless leftovers without proper certification.

I phoned Sarnoff before heading downtown, and he threw up a fireworks show of sound bites and brow-furrowing statistics. "This isn't a homeless issue; it's a panhandling issue," the commissioner proclaimed, pointing out that "most beggars have homes." His evidence: They gave cops addresses to list on arrest reports. Also: "52 percent" of Miami-Dade County's homeless population has overrun the city of Miami, and "32 percent" of the city's tax base lives in the blocks surrounding the arena.

I asked Sarnoff if the change in the law was spurred by the revamped Miami Heat roster. "This is Miami's time to shine!" he fired back unabashedly. "The rest of the U.S. isn't doing very well, and Miami is doing extremely well."

So, does he hope to eventually see the entire city, county, and LeBron-fearin' state ban panhandling outright? "What I want isn't feasible," he replies somewhat ominously, "so it's irrelevant."

On Third Avenue, I strike up a conversation about the no-panhandling zone with the homeless guy who looks like Kimbo Slice (he declined to give his name). Kimbo, who gets downright chatty when it's established that neither of us is going to give the other money, calls the zone "plain mean... I don't harass or hurt anybody. There ain't nothing wrong with me buying a beer every once in a while if somebody wants to help me get it."

That's pretty much the consensus among the downtrodden, I discover, after ditching the cardboard sign. News of the expanded zone is like a fresh picking of an old scab. Last year, after releasing a much-disputed study claiming that Miamians give panhandlers $40 million a year, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust planted garish Romero Britto-painted coin meters around town to deter people from giving money directly to beggars. Each meter cost $1,000 to install, and there are dozens. "They gotta find a way to line their pockets, so they want all the money to go through them," grumbles Henry Dunn, a 63-year-old panhandler sporting a Hemingwayesque white beard and, somewhat ironically, a Miami Heat hat. He's hanging around a county-run lot across from Bayside Marketplace, brazenly trying to poach change or parking stubs from drivers. He hasn't been arrested since cops launched enforcement operation "Get It Done" before the Heat's home opener, he says, "but they've had me running and hiding, that's for sure."

Not surprising, most motorists parking their cars aren't heartbroken by the beggars' lack of legal territory. "About time," shoots Gabriela Martinez, a Miami Beach resident sojourning to the Gap. "They scare the tourists."

"It's money-making Miami at work," white-haired George Siegel says with a neutral shrug. "Homeless people aren't exactly the most powerful contingent in the world."

But at least one citizen misses the hustling hordes that once worked this parking lot. A Cadillac Escalade driver named Fernando used to save a few bucks by buying his parking stub from panhandlers who resold old ones. "Yeah, where they at?" he asks when I broach the subject of the missing beggars. I point him toward the bearded Dunn, who is scouring the ground for cigarette butts in the distance.

As I trudge far away from the arena and into the barren yes-panhandling zone to get my car, I pass Kimbo slouching against a chainlink fence. Not willing to spend the evening dodging police, he's resigned to waiting for dinnertime at a nearby shelter. I give him my 75 cents.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts

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