For almost a decade, Pastor Frank Diaz has been feeding the homeless in Overtown. But beginning last year, he says, he and his volunteers have been repeatedly stopped by Miami Police officers and told they're no longer allowed to hand out food.
The cops stepped in again a few weeks ago after Diaz finished leading a group in prayer on a Tuesday afternoon. As he prepared to hand out pizzas underneath the I-395 overpass, officers intervened and forbade him from passing out lunch, Diaz says.
"There's an unwritten law right now being put into effect to make sure they discourage the homeless from being in that location," he says.
Diaz believes the directive is coming from the Southeast Overtown CRA in an attempt to gentrify the neighborhood. When he called Overtown's police commander, Nicole Davis, to ask for an explanation, she told him the CRA was the entity that wanted to stop the feedings, the pastor says.
"That came from the top," Diaz says. "I support law enforcement — they're not really against us. They're just enforcing what the city is telling them."
Davis remembers their phone call differently, though. She denies mentioning the CRA in her conversation with Diaz and says neighbors in the area are actually the ones who've made complaints.
"They're upset about it, they complain about it, they talk about the food rotting on the ground," she tells New Times. "We have rats the size of dogs and to-go containers everywhere."
Cornelius Shiver, the director of the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community CRA, also denies involvement.
"The SEOPW CRA has neither weighed in, commented, or otherwise taken any official position against any volunteers feeding the homeless in Overtown," he writes in an email.
But regardless of the source of the new directive, the fact that volunteers are being stopped is troubling given recent actions by the city. In April, city workers were filmed removing the property of several homeless people during a so-called street cleanup at the same intersection where Diaz was stopped. And just last week, Miami commissioners voted to have the city attorney try to overturn the Pottinger agreement, a resolution that prevents homeless people from being arrested for life-sustaining activities such as sleeping in public.
Diaz's complaints also echo a contentious battle in Fort Lauderdale, where 90-year-old activist Arnold Abbot made national headlines in 2014 after he was arrested for feeding the homeless.
Davis doesn't deny that police have approached volunteers and asked them not to feed the homeless, although she says the practice is not technically illegal.
"We do try to discourage it," she says. "We don't take anybody to jail; we don't give anybody issues. We just tell them the neighbors are not happy. It's a tough situation because you want people to eat, and we get that, but at the same time we've got the neighbors always screaming about the debris and the trash and the to-go containers."
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Diaz, who stands by his allegation that the CRA is behind the crackdown, says he and his group always pick up their trash on the way out, though he's unable to control what happens after they leave.
"You're always going to have that in the homeless community. You get people who just throw garbage randomly and don't really care about the environment or their own area," he says.
In the meantime, he hasn't stopped making his rounds to feed the homeless.
"What's the worst thing they could do, stop us?" he says. "We don't want to break the law, but we still want to help people."