Miami's Homeless Say City Workers Are Stealing Their Stuff

Kevin Henderson had a rude awakening early the morning of July 2, as if sleeping on the sidewalk adjacent to the Highland Professional Building on NW 18th Street wasn't bad enough. The building is a frequent bed-down spot for the homeless because of its wide overhang, which protects them from the rain, and it had been a dreary, wet night.

"When I wake up, I see bags on top of bags piled up. They were throwing people's stuff on the truck," Henderson recalls, his version of events supported by several fellow homeless people who also say they were victimized.

"It was the green shirts," Henderson says.

The "green shirts" are a division of more than 40 workers, most formerly homeless themselves, who are employed by Miami's Homeless Assistance Program (MHAP) and tasked with offering services and shelter.

Henderson says that incident was the third time the city workers had stolen his stuff. This time around, he says, they took "six pairs of shoes, all my clothes, they got my food stamp card, my ID, my social security card, my prison ID, and they got $250 in cash. They didn't even bother to go through the stuff to see what was important to me."

In interviews conducted over the past six months, dozens of homeless people living in downtown Miami have complained about rampant property theft by city employees. It's just the latest insult in what has been a hostile year for the city's most marginalized population. In April, city officials, prompted by business owners who blame the presence of homeless people for economic woes, proposed rolling back the few basic protections afforded to the homeless — protections they had fought more than a decade to get. If a judge OKs the rollbacks this month, it will be like going back in time to a much darker age.

Dozens of homeless people around the city say they've been victimized by green shirts; half a dozen say they were hassled in the same incident that Henderson describes. Vicki Perez, who only months earlier had been living in her own Miami condo, recalls the same rainy morning. She managed to get her suitcase returned before the green shirts drove off, but it wasn't without a fight.

"They started taking our things, our belongings, and throwing [them] onto the truck. They took my carrier, and that's when I got up and got really upset," she recalls. "They were very rude. They were horrible. I don't think we should be treated that way because we're living out in the streets."

A week after the alleged July thefts, Gene Evans was sweeping the sidewalk — his daily chore — across from "The Sisters" with half a broom that had snapped in two. He hunched over as his sweaty hands gripped the splintered handle and sent dirt streetward. "The Sisters" is what homeless folks call the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns that feeds the homeless six days a week from a facility on NW 17th Street. Established in Miami some 30 years ago by Mother Teresa, the charity itself faced being shut down by the city earlier this year, though the conflict was ultimately resolved.

Once their makeshift sitting room was clean, Gene and a few fellow homeless perched side by side on plastic crates and nodded in affirmation as one after the next recounted a litany of recent abuse by cops and city workers.

A few, such as Jesse Shiggs, recalled the bad old days prior to 1998, when the head of the division that enforced anti-vagrancy laws referred to his crew as "bum busters." Cops would regularly arrest the homeless for no reason or confiscate their belongings. Or worse. In one incident, cops handcuffed residents of a Lummus Park homeless encampment and tossed their possessions — including personal identification, medicine, clothing, and a Bible — onto a pile and ignited it into a flaming pyre. Adding to the grinding day-to-day harassment that homeless people had been enduring for decades, that incident sparked the homeless community's desire to fight back.

In 1988, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed Pottinger v. City of Miami on behalf of a homeless man, Michael Pottinger, and about 6,000 other homeless Miami residents. Its intent was to protect the rights of homeless folks to engage in behavior that they can't help but perform in public — eating, preparing food, sleeping — 11 categories of behavior in all. The case settled after ten years of winding its way through a complex process of mediations and hearings at various levels of the federal court system. The settlement dictated that no homeless person's property was to be confiscated — or, if it was taken in the context of a justified arrest, it was to be kept safe and returned to its owner upon release from jail. Arrests would be permitted only if a homeless person, having engaged in Pottinger-protected misdemeanor activity such as sleeping on a sidewalk, refused an offer of shelter. If no shelter was available, the law stipulated that police wouldn't be allowed to even approach the person in question. Other, more serious offenses, would remain cause for arrest no matter the individual's status as homeless.

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Jeff Weinberger