By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
MIAMI — A 15-year truce between the city of Miami and the city’s homeless could be over.
Miami’s commissioners are petitioning the courts to modify the historic consent decree, or settlement, known as Pottinger v. City of Miami, where about 6,000 homeless people, along with the support of American Civil Liberties Union, sued the city claiming that the police had criminalized homelessness. The courts found that criminalization of essential acts performed in public violated various plaintiffs’ rights under the Fourth, 14th and Eighth Amendments.
Under the consent decree, the city agreed not to arrest the homeless for such things as sleeping, eating and congregating in public, and pledged not to confiscate and destroy their belongings.
But that may change.
“As you all know things have changed in Miami,” said Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who proposed the modifications and described the homeless situation as a “chronic problem” in the city.
“We have exactly 351 homeless people, which represents 40 percent of the total homeless in the county,” he said.
City commissioners are considering the hiring the same law firm that fought the landmark case in 1998. They want to modify the definition of “life-sustaining activities” to exclude starting fires to cook meals in public areas, blocking sidewalks, littering, relieving themselves in public and lewd conduct.
The city also wants to give police authority to arrest people who refuse to go to a shelter on three occasions within a 180 day period and to confiscate their belongings. The city also asked the judge to exclude sexual predators from the provisions of the Pottinger settlement.
But before the commissioners can change the decree, they will first have to battle the ACLU.
“We are here to explain to people what the Pottinger lawsuit is about and why this settlement is important for protecting the underprivileged,” said Benjamin Waxman, a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU, during a talk with a group of youths in downtown Miami.
“I think what bothers them (the city) is their presence, because they are trying to project the image of Miami as a center of international travel and business, and they see the homeless as interfering with their intentions,” said Waxman.
But according to police, commerce and image have little to do with it. They maintain that homeless people scare passersby with aggressive and less-than-civilized behavior, like defecating and urinating in public.
He noted that during the 1998 trial, the judge didn’t buy the city’s proposal to relegate the homeless to “safe areas.”
“The judge found that the ‘safe areas’ could become ‘ghettos’ then ruled in our favor,” Waxman said.
The ACLU lawyer said he has met with the city’s attorney, but has not yet reached an agreement on their request to modify the settlement.
According to Sarnoff, since the 1998 decree, the number of people living on the streets of Miami has dropped dramatically. The homeless population went from 6,000 to around 351, thanks to more shelters and programs dedicated to getting folks off the streets.
But there are still some who are holding out and refuse to accept help. They are referred to by the authorities as “chronic cases.”.
One such case involved Ronald Poppo, a homeless man who gained notoriety for being the victim of the horrific “cannibal’ attack” on the MacArthur Causeway in Miami. Poppo had lived under the bridge for several years and refused to go to a shelter, until one night when he was attacked by a man who beat him and bit off most of his face above his beard and his left eye, leaving him blind.
The case struck a chord with the public. After the attack it was learned that Poppo had been an outstanding student in school and his family had lost contact with him long ago, but at some point his addictions won the battle and he ended up living on the street.
Waxman and other homeless advocates like Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, said that “nothing good can come from putting (the homeless) in prison.”
Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust has $52 million and provides homes and services to those without resources. Miami also is discussing funding of 15 new beds for the homeless, with the county anteing up the cost for another 85.
In other counties like Lee in southwest Florida, homelessness is on the rise. From 2008 to 2011, the number increased by 30 percent. County officials attribute the increase to state funding cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs.
So, in April 2008 the county decided to create a pilot program called Bob Janes Triage Center. The center aims to be an alternative to jail for people living on the street or who are at risk of committing minor, non-violent crimes.
In 2008 the center opened with 22 beds, which grew to 58 by 2010.
The facility is operated as a multi‐agency collaborative effort between Lee County Human Services, the Salvation Army, Lee Mental Health, Lee Memorial Health System, Southwest Florida Addiction Services, the United Way of Lee County, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lee County and local law enforcement.
But despite that Bob Janes Triage Center receives national recognition—it loses state funding.
None of the city of Miami commissioners were available for comment. Florida Watchdog also tried to contact Sarnoff’s press agent by phone and email, and they asked to received the questions by email. They have yet to respond to that email.
Watch the interview with ACLU lawyer Benjamin Waxman.
Contact Marianela Toledo at [email protected] twitter @mtoledoreporter