For about a year, homeless people in Miami Beach who didn't want to sleep in the city's shelters had another safe option: a lawn outside city hall. But that didn't last long. After complaints, the city erected a fence a year and a half ago to keep the homeless out.
"There were several complaints from people who were coming for events in the park nearby, and the city manager decided to put a fence all around the building so they wouldn't be able to come in," says Valerie Navarrete, a realtor who chairs Miami Beach's Committee on the Homeless.
But Navarrete argues that the city still needs a safe outdoor space where the homeless can sleep overnight, so during a Wednesday meeting of her committee, she floated the idea of choosing a new location.
But the idea was met with fierce disapproval, including from Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates, who said such a space would lead to crime and fail to help protect the homeless.
"It's a terrible idea," Oates told the committee. "We had the area for a time, and it wan't safe. We had people there who desperately needed medical treatment who were getting none, we had a workforce coming into this building every day who weren't feeling safe, and we had some of the homeless people who were staying in the space getting into fights with each other."
Oates says that sleeping overnight in parks violates trespassing laws and that his force will no longer ignore those rules. MBPB gives warnings the first time an officer spots a homeless person sleeping overnight in a park, he says, but arrests them if they are seen trespassing again. Trespassing is one of seven minor misdemeanors for which officers can chose to either issue a citation or make an arrest under a countywide ordinance passed in 2015.
"For a year, we tolerated people sleeping here at night outside the building to offer them an alternative. It did not work out, and in no uncertain terms the city manager told me that that is over," Oates said. "It's a nonissue in this city. Every homeless person who we are going to attempt to arrest for trespassing is first offered an opportunity for shelter."
Other committee members were even more dismissive of the idea. Former Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, who hurried into the meeting late as she wielded an old-fashioned hand fan, laughed at the suggestion of a safe space.
"Why don't we put it outside the police station?" she asked sarcastically while fanning herself and looking at Oates.
However, Navarrete, who regularly interviews Miami Beach's homeless people about how they became homeless and what services they need, says many don't feel safe in shelters. She says some have told her about being robbed or getting attacked in Miami-area shelters and described it as an unsafe environment where they felt likely to be targeted if they did not latch onto a group.
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"I won't stay in any shelters," a disabled woman named Gina told Navarrete. "They're more dangerous than the streets."
In the end, though, the committee agreed with Oates that the city wouldn't create an outdoor safe space for the homeless.
Navarrete told the committee the problem wouldn't go away just because the city wouldn't acknowledge it.
"I do wish there was a safe area where the homeless could sleep without being woken up and arrested in the middle of the night," she said. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach. If they don't want to go to the shelter, I feel like we ought to have something else."