Miami Could Essentially Make Homelessness Illegal Today

In 1990, a group of homeless men and women was sleeping in Lummus Park near the Miami River when they were jarred awake by police officers. Before most knew what was happening, they were yanked from their tents, handcuffed, and forced to watch while officers burned everything they owned: clothes, Bibles, driver's licenses, medicine.

The brutal crackdown wasn't unusual at the time. But testimony about that moment became a key point in a landmark federal lawsuit against the city that forced massive reforms in how cops dealt with homeless people. Instead of arresting them, the courts ruled, police had to help them find housing.

Today those reforms could be seriously scaled back by the Miami City Commission, which will vote on an "anti-camping" bill sponsored by Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.

See also: Homeless in South Florida: Amidst Feeding Law Furor, Street Life Is Never Simple

Sarnoff's bill, which is scheduled for a final vote at today's commission meeting, would make it illegal to have "camping paraphernalia" like tents or mobile stoves on public property; violators could be fined $500 or arrested.

The commissioner has pitched the bill as a safety issue. Who knows what's in those tents, Sarnoff says. "The purpose behind this legislative change is to give police another bow in the quiver to try to get [the homeless] into the continuum of care," the commissioner said in a statement.

Homeless advocates aren't buying it. Ron Book, the head of the Homeless Trust, tells New Times the bill is a cynical move to criminalize homelessness despite strong evidence that approach doesn't work.

"This is the greatest spin effort I've seen him do yet," Book says. "You can't criminalize homelessness. You just can't. And that's what he's doing. He's going to continue to chip away as long as we let him, and by the time he's done, he'll screw up the entire continuum of care we've worked so hard to establish."

Indeed, the timing of Sarnoff's bill suggests it has much more to do with cold, hard cash. Downtown's condo market is finally booming, and a massive new development -- Miami Worldcenter -- is about to be built in an area with one of Miami's largest homeless populations.

Critics say Sarnoff's bill is really about one thing: Giving police the chance to go back to the 1980s when they could simply arrest and harass the homeless downtown.

"The whole basis of it is flawed. There's no evidence-based approach for what he's doing," Book says. "The fact is, he doesn't know diddly squat about homelessness. They should ask the experts on this how to approach the problem, not the people parachuting in with no idea how to address this."

That 1980s policy is what led to the landmark federal lawsuit, which was finally settled in 1997 with the "Pottinger Agreement," which included a financial settlement for homeless and a mandate for the city to put money and resources into housing and transitional programs rather than criminal enforcement.

And it worked. The Miami Herald reported last month that Miami-Dade has actually halved its homeless population to about 4,000 people; roughly 600 live downtown by one recent count.

But that's still 600 too many homeless people in the neighborhood when you're trying to sell seven-figure condos and lure luxury retailers to the neighborhood.

Sarnoff has already watered down his bill, taking out a provision that would also ban pillows, blankets, and personal items. But today's vote would still be a huge step symbolically: Homelessness, Miami would be saying, is a criminal violation, not a social ill in need of resources and remedy.

Book said he expects the bill to pass -- and expects legal challenges to follow.

"The fact of the matter is they're trying to undermine our successful efforts to end homelessness," Book says. "They're making a terrible mistake."

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink