It's Payback Time

A lot has changed since the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) embarked on a legal jihad against the City of Miami on behalf of 5000 vagrants in 1988. Senior U.S. District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins, whose ruling in Pottinger v. Miami created a national stir, has died. So have two ACLU attorneys, Rodney Thaxton and Maurice Rosen. Lead plaintiffs Michael Pottinger and Berry Young have disappeared. Ronald Sippio, Apryl Jenkins, and Ronnie Houston have escaped crack addiction and life on the street. Veda Mobley kicked her habit, but recently relapsed.

The case established an important precedent: Cops have no right to arrest people just because they are homeless. It also helped convince county voters to approve a tax that now funds a broad range of social services.

In November, finally, comes the coup de grâce. The city will send out $1500 checks to more than 200 plaintiffs who have proved police violated their civil rights. And that's not all. Because Miami agreed to set aside $600,000 as part of the 1998 settlement, as much as $400,000 of the total will now be available for homeless people. It's unclear how that cash will be distributed. "What's envisioned is that the money would go toward first month, last month, and security deposits on apartments for the homeless, or vocational training," says ACLU attorney Ben Waxman. "Services that will help homeless people lift themselves out of homelessness."

In the early Eighties, Miami police routinely rousted people camped in public places, jailed them, destroyed their possessions, and released them to an even more wretched existence. Police memoranda made public after the ACLU lawsuit revealed officers had termed the practice "vagrant control" and "extraction of undesirables." The paperwork also showed that officers referred to the squad that cracked down on the homeless as "bum busters."

Ronald Sippio, a heavyset man with an oval face and neat mustache, remembers the city's tactics well. Back in 1988 he was living on the Slab, a stretch of sidewalk in downtown Miami under the I-95 overpass at North Miami Avenue and Eleventh Street. The place wasn't exactly comfortable or safe, but it was a refuge for 30 to 50 of the toughest homeless men in town. Like Sippio, most Slab inhabitants were hardened by years on the street. The majority was also addicted to crack or alcohol. Police arrested Sippio eleven times between 1988 and 1992. Most of the collars, he says, were unjustified. At least three were for cocaine possession.

"One night in 1988 the police were looking for a guy," Sippio recounts. "At the time there were about twenty homeless people lying down on the Slab. For some reason the police tried to convince me I was the guy they were looking for. I had no clue what they were talking about. These people lying down said the guy [whom the officers were chasing] just ran through here, but [the police] told 'em to shut up."

Sippio was eventually handcuffed and seated in the back of a squad car. He says his legs were halfway out the door. "This officer came and tried to slam the door on me," he remembers. "He said I tried to jam the door, so the foolishness started there." The officers told Sippio they didn't want the dog excrement on the bottom of his shoe to ruin the squad car's carpet. So the homeless man scraped off the feces with his hand and plastered it on a cop's chest. "He called for backup and before I knew it they were kneeing me on the ground."

Around the same time, Ronnie Houston was living in Bicentennial Park. He'd been there for about three years when Miami officers began repeatedly charging him with vagrancy, loitering, and resisting arrest. "They would just make things up," he protests. During the following year, Houston says, authorities took him to the station so many times he lost count. Each time he was discharged after a few hours or days. And each time Houston returned to the park to find his personal belongings, including photos, either missing or burned. "A lot of the things were of sentimental value," he says. "They were the kinds of things you can't put a price tag on."

Between 1986 and 1993, Apryl Jenkins lived in a vacant lot on NE 78th Street and Second Avenue. Police arrested her seven times. "It was one of their routine stops," she says. While the charges ranged from trespassing to cocaine possession, Jenkins contends she was routinely harassed and her property destroyed. "They would just wipe everything out," she says. "That would cause me to have to start accumulating clothes all over again." Once an officer even took her wallet, she claims. "He told me to leave and not to let him see me again that day," Jenkins says. "I remember just walking down the street and crying; it was so humiliating."

Veda Mobley was living in a car that she parked just off Biscayne Boulevard when she was arrested in the early Nineties. Then the city towed the vehicle with Mobley's belongings still inside. "They wouldn't even let me get my stuff," she complains.

After the ACLU presented evidence of these cases and others like them, Judge C. Clyde Atkins issued his landmark 1992 ruling. The city had violated homeless people's constitutional rights. Authorities should halt minor arrests related to homelessness and create "safe zones" for street people. The city appealed the decision and adopted a hands-off policy toward the homeless. Although deliberations were slow, the lawsuit proved to be an unprecedented catalyst for change. In 1993 county voters approved a one percent restaurant tax to support homeless programs, the first dedicated source of funding for such services in the nation. As a result the county established a homeless trust to manage a system of care, including shelters for the indigent.

In 1995 the appeals court sent the Pottinger lawsuit back to Judge Atkins. After hearing arguments from both sides, Atkins concluded Miami hadn't done enough. Once again the city appealed and the case went to mediation. The city commission approved an agreement in December 1997. Then there were months of hashing out the particulars. Finally Judge Federico Moreno, who took over the case, approved a plan in November 1998. (Four months later Judge Atkins died.) The city would shell out $1.5 million, including the $600,000 for people who could submit police records to prove they were homeless and wrongfully arrested between 1984 and 1997. Ten attorneys who worked on the case split a total of $900,000 in fees.

The compensation process started January 4, 1999. For about three months, ACLU attorneys and volunteers placed advertisements in newspapers and visited homeless shelters each week. The ACLU set up a workshop for people who needed assistance in filing claims. University of Miami and St. Thomas University law students even walked the streets to get the word out. "We literally spent hundreds of hours trying to locate people with potential claims and assisted them in filing those claims," Waxman says.

This past April, U.S. Magistrate Ted Bandstra decided 260 of 450 claims met the settlement's standards. The city requested re-evaluation of 60 applicants, contending those people did not provide sufficient proof. Bandstra will decide soon. "It would have been hard to envision eleven years ago," Ben Waxman says "These people have waited so long for this day."

Apryl Jenkins was homeless for five years; she's been clean for seven. Today she is off the streets, holds a part-time job as a janitor, and is caring for her five-year-old daughter. "Last time I was arrested I was so tired of going through that merry-go-round I told the judge I really wanted to put myself together," says the 37-year-old, who hopes to land full-time work as a city bus driver. The $1500, she says, will be spent on Christmas presents for her child and maybe a "cheap little car" for herself.

Ronald Sippio has been clean since December 31, 1993. He's jobless at the moment but hopes to start working as a cook at The Village, a rehabilitation center for former addicts. He plans to open a savings account with the $1500. "I don't hate the police, I really don't. I'm not angry at anyone. I'm just glad God gave me a chance to start over."

Things are still difficult for Veda Mobley. After quitting drug use eight years ago, she recently relapsed. The Florida Department of Children and Families took custody of her children, and not long ago she was in a car accident. Mobley, now living with her mother, is miserable. She'll use the settlement money to pay for drug treatment. "You know ... I'm having a really hard time," she says. "I tell you, it's a hurtin' thing. My mom tells me, 'Get up, pick yourself up, get going,' and I just can't."

Ronnie Houston says a $1500 check from the city won't replace a University of Hawaii basketball jersey that police burned; it was a gift from his cousin. But he welcomes the cash. In 1995, jolted by his grandmother's death, Houston quit using most drugs. "I got a totally different perspective on everything when she passed away," Houston says. "Before I was a man on a mission without a plan. Now I'm a man that's planning a mission. I find myself caring a lot more and thinking before I react."

Today the 39-year-old has a part-time job, a car, and a two-bedroom Liberty City apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, Dessie Hart, and her five kids. The dull, blue skull tattooed on his right arm and his marijuana habit are the traces of his past life as a drug dealer that remain. "I like where I'm at and I know it can get better," Houston remarks. "So why regress?"

He plans on spending the cash on home repairs and a one-day cruise for his honeymoon. "But it's really all up to Dessie," he asserts. "She has the last word."

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Lissette Corsa
Kathy Glasgow
Contact: Kathy Glasgow