Longform

It's Payback Time

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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?"

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Lissette Corsa
Kathy Glasgow
Contact: Kathy Glasgow