Homeless People Involuntarily Committed to Alcohol Treatment Under New Miami Beach Initiative

A few months ago, a group of Miami Beach Police officers listed the city's most troubled homeless people — those who lived on the streets, were in poor health, and were severely dependent on alcohol.

Those on the list had consistently refused offers of treatment or shelter, and it didn't seem likely they would change their minds anytime soon. So police began researching legal solutions to route them to treatment.

The result? As of this week, seven homeless people in city limits have been committed to treatment for up to 60 days against their will. And that number is likely to grow. It's a tough-love approach that police Chief Daniel Oates presents as a more humane alternative to arrest. But some homeless advocates are deeply concerned. 

State law allows commitment of people who are drug- or alcohol-dependent if they have lost the power of self-control over their addiction and are either a physical danger to themselves or others — or are incapable of making a rational decision to get treatment.

A July 19 memo from City Manager Jimmy Morales describes a "revolving door" by which homeless people would be committed to local hospitals under the state's 1993 Marchman Act, medically evaluated, and quickly released. The law allows a person to be held for assessment for up to five days and then committed to treatment for up to 90 days following a court hearing. 

Under the new initiative, police have used the court system to request mandatory 60-day treatment periods for "chronically homeless individuals." The city's memo says Miami Beach is the first jurisdiction in Miami-Dade County to use this tactic.

At a city commission meeting earlier this month, Oates, who was appointed police chief in 2014, lauded the program as an innovative and common-sense solution to the Beach's homeless problem. 

"Every social service person and every police chief and police officer in the country will tell you that arrests are not a long-term solution to solving homeless problems," he said at the meeting. "There are many people that we arrest over and over and over again."

New Times was unable to reach lawyers with the Miami-area Office of Regional Counsel, which would represent indigent people like the homeless individuals in Miami Beach who are at risk of being forced into treatment. But Kathleen McCarthy, an attorney with the Office of Regional Counsel in Broward County, says she's not aware of any police department in Broward that uses the Marchman Act to commit homeless people to treatment. 

Homeless advocates disagree about the new initiative. Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, says he likes the idea of police being proactive in trying to get help for people who might not be able to accept it on their own.

"At the end of the day, if any one of us saw somebody on the street that had a slash in their arm bleeding profusely, we would call 911," he says. "What they're doing is identifying people who need help, not criminalizing them."

If all goes according to plan, Book believes the program would make both the individual and the community safer.

"To me, if this works and we can get people stabilized and ultimately prepared to accept our services [at the Homeless Trust], I'm not sure it's a bad idea. It certainly warrants exploring," he says.

But Melissa Gallo, director of policy at Miami Homes for All, says she is "gravely concerned" after reading the city manager's memo, which came to her attention only after New Times reached out to the organization. 

"Forced institutionalization is not a proven solution to homelessness and impinges on the rights of homeless individuals," she writes in an email. "We continue to push and promote that the solution to homelessness is safe/stable housing that provides the services the individual needs."

Gallo points to initiatives such as the Lazarus Project, which works to get mental health medication to homeless people on a voluntary basis, as a model that's both compassionate and effective.

"We believe these are the types of effective strategies Miami Beach should pursue that preserve an individual's dignity and produce a far more lasting impact on the individual and our community," she says.

Stephen Schnably, a law professor at the University of Miami who worked on the landmark Pottinger case, which established civil rights for the homeless and decriminalized a variety of low-level misdemeanors, also says he's troubled by the involuntary commitments in Miami Beach. "It doesn't really do anything to solve the underlying problem of homelessness," he says. Even if the treatment works, "it's hard to avoid relapses if you're homeless."

Schnably also is concerned the initiative singles out homeless people by treating them differently from addicts with housing. "The larger reality is there's just not enough shelter spaces," he says. "The memo expresses this hope that the housing issue will be resolved after the 60 days are over, but I don't see the basis of hope."

Under Florida law, a state-funded provider can't refuse services to someone based on an inability to pay as long as a bed is available. But McCarthy, the Broward attorney, says that even someone who is ordered into treatment under the Marchman Act isn't guaranteed a spot. Providers can deny treatment to people with existing medical issues or severe mental health problems.

"For people with schizophrenia and substance abuse issues, for example, trying to find a residential place for them to go is virtually impossible," she says. 

Miami Beach Police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez says the court-ordered treatment takes place at a facility determined by the South Florida Behavioral Health Network. Calls to the organization were not immediately returned Wednesday. 

A copy of the memo is below: 

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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb