One should always be wary when city officials declare they are "listening" to the people's problems. Activist Max Rameau knew this on Wednesday, when Miami City Manager Pedro Hernandez journeyed out to Umoja, Rameau's five-week-old shantytown village for the homeless in Liberty City.
"I'm here to listen to your problems," Hernandez said at about 2:45 p.m., patiently clasping his hands. He cocked his head and assumed a listening pose. He was wearing an Armani watch. Nearby, a homeless man who bore a strong resemblance to Kid Rock (pre-Pamela) slung a blue tarp over a shack and secured it with a stone. It will be the village's final shack — otherwise known as a "pallet condo," because it is comprised of wooden pallets. A street poet-cum-crack addict named Gypsy Bird has dibs on the unit.
"I respect your position," Hernandez continued. "And your message. I just don't agree with your method of stating your goal."
Rameau's goal: protest the lack of affordable housing, gentrification, scarce bed space in homeless shelters, and other sundry problems plaguing Miami's poor. Rameau is striving for a parallel city, and he's succeeding: about 35 people -- mostly black men -- live in the shacks. There's a well-stocked kitchen, a port-a-potty, and a cistern shower; some pink and white flowers are blooming in cinder-block planters, a bright spot on the otherwise bleak intersection of NW 62nd St. and 17th Ave.
Police have largely left the shantytown alone, much to Rameau's surprise (he's been a harsh critic of the force for years). The cops can't exactly do much, anyway: the homeless are allowed "life sustaining activities" such as seeking shelter, showering, and pissing in public without harassment, according to a federal case (Pottinger vs. Miami) decided a decade ago. The Pottinger decision led to Miami's homeless network.
But that hasn't stopped city leaders from trying to talk the homeless out of squatting on the land, which is publicly owned. Authorities have sent a parade of low-level bureaucrats to talk to Rameau and the others; Hernandez' visit was the first by a real authority figure from the city, said Rameau. And for the activist, it meant one thing. "When are you planning on raiding us?" he asked Hernandez, who didn't answer the question, saying that he wanted to assess where the city should next build affordable homes.
"I understand the problem," Hernandez said. "I want to help out."
Hernandez had a few questions for Rameau, as well. Where, he said, are the homeless in the shantytown from? Liberty City?
The half-dozen homeless who had clustered around Hernandez nodded.
"Or are they imported?" Hernandez asked.
Rameau said that most had been living under city bridges.
When another activist piped in, Hernandez turned toward her. His perfectly combed silver hair didn't move. "Where are you from?" he asked.
"Uh, originally, Michigan..." she replied.
Everyone looked puzzled. Is anyone actually from Miami? Certainly not Hernandez, who was born in Cuba — a point that was not lost on some of the homeless people listening to the conversation.
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Nothing really happened during the hour-long talk. Rameau suggested Hernandez talk to everyone living in the shanties.
There were no contracts drawn, no plans for a second gathering, no city hall meetings set. Hernandez said he liked one guy's idea -- to use the able-bodied homeless to build an apartment building on a city-owned lot in Liberty City, then allow the homeless to live in it -- and promised Rameau he would be in touch.
"You'll see me here again," Hernandez said, putting a hand on Rameau's shoulder and squeezing.
Hernandez was smiling, but Rameau wasn't. -Tamara Lush