Miami officials allegedly attempted to evict a group of homeless people living in Overtown this morning, a move advocates are describing as "cruel" and "heartless" amid the coronavirus crisis.
"The fact that the state is choosing to evict people during a pandemic is inhumane," says Rachel Gilmer, co-director of Dream Defenders, a social-justice nonprofit.
Gilmer tells New Times she was at the Dream Defenders' service site at St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church in Overtown around 9 a.m. when a homeless man told her that all the people she'd given tents to under an overpass at NW 11th Street and NW Third Avenue were being evicted.
"We saw City of Miami police telling these people who have been here for years to leave," Gilmer says.
When Dream Defenders members arrived and voiced objections to the rousting, Gilmer says, the police officers left — but not before telling some of the homeless people that they would return and arrest anyone who was still living there.
She then posted a video to Twitter that shows workers clad in green City of Miami shirts cleaning out the homeless encampment and sweeping personal property onto the street.
The video also shows a sign that Gilmer says was put up only yesterday, warning people that they were trespassing if they stayed in that area. Gilmer says she was told the land is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and that it was the entity who'd requested the evictions.
BREAKING: Houseless people in Downtown Miami being evicted RIGHT NOW by Miami Police. A sign was put up last night that says "Tresspassing is a crime," and now people who have lived here for years have been given 30 minutes to leave. Disgusting to do this during a pandemic! pic.twitter.com/CoQ421vmcB— Dream Defenders (@Dreamdefenders) May 13, 2020
FDOT spokesperson Tish Burgher tells New Times the City of Miami's Overtown Neighborhood Enhancement Team initiated the operation, which she described as a "joint cleanup effort" of a highway construction site.
"The City asked the [FDOT] contractor to be present so they can remove trash that is on the FDOT right-of-way," Burgher states in an email. "Previously, the City requested that we install 'No Trespassing' signs.... Yesterday, the contractor placed the signs on the north side of NW 11 Street and the south side of NW 10 Street."
Michael Vega, a spokesperson for the Miami Police Department, says officers were only on the scene to provide backup and "did NOT make any arrests or dispose of any personal property."
"The City of Miami conducted a coordinated effort with The Florida Department of Transportation, the Department of Human Services, and The Homeless Outreach to assist with illegal dumping and debris," Vega writes in an email. "Resources are always onsite to provide shelter if anyone would want it during these weekly cleanups."
Despite officials' assertions that the operation was a "cleanup," Dream Defenders members interviewed homeless people who said they'd been told they had to leave the encampment.
"We were just informed this morning that we have to leave. I was told that when they come back, anybody who's here at that point is gonna go to jail," one woman says in a video shared on Twitter. "We're trying to figure out: Where do we go?"
In another clip, a homeless man tells a similar story: "I have been evicted from my place of residence under this bridge for no apparent reason."
David Peery, an advocate for Miami's homeless, says he went to the overpass this morning to see for himself what was going on. He called the scene "bad, cruel, and heartless."
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"Lots of people upset and traumatized, talking loudly about being ordered to leave that area immediately," Peery says. "It's outrageous for the city or the FDOT to do this now."
Although there was some confusion about the role of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust in the cleanup operation, the Trust's chairman Ron Book tells New Times the agency had nothing to do with it and condemns the city's actions.
The green-shirted workers at the scene are from the city's homeless outreach team, not the Homeless Trust, Book says.
"We have nothing to do with what they're doing. We didn't authorize or sanction it. We're not participating. If anyone says they were there on our behalf, they're lying," Book says. "I don't think [tent encampments] are good, but I won't break them up."