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Miami looks to 'criminalize' homelessness

Published time: July 23, 2013 03:00
Edited time: July 23, 2013 07:49
Reuters / Carlos Barria

Reuters / Carlos Barria

The city of Miami has stirred controversy after a commissioner floated the idea of reneging on a landmark agreement that instructs police officers not to arrest the homeless for largely minor offenses.

In 1998 Miami enacted an agreement on the heels of Pottinger v. City of Miami, which instructed law enforcement to take a soft stance on infractions such as littering, cooking a meal in public using a fire, or defecating in public without first offering them a bed in a shelter. While the homeless might be considered a nuisance by some, in legal terms the city adopted a live-and-let-live mentality.

The decree, or settlement, adopted by the city came after 6,000 homeless individuals with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union took on the status of what had been arrestable offenses in Miami, arguing that police had “criminalized” homelessness, violating plaintiff’s rights under the Fourth, 14th and Eighth Amendments.

Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff has now proposed modifications to city code, describing the homeless situation as a “chronic problem” for the city.

Current city law defines “life-sustaining activities” as offenses not warranting arrest. These can include activities such as blocking sidewalks, sleeping in public or lewd conduct.

In June a majority of the city’s commission voted to appeal a federal court to alter the terms of the 1998 settlement. At least some of the city’s commissioners also support hiring the same law firm that fought against the landmark case of 1998, according to Florida Watchdog.

Currently there are an estimated 835 homeless people in Miami-Dade County, of which 351 live on the streets of the city and routinely turn down offers of shelter, usually either due to drug addiction and mental conditions.

According to the Miami Herald, there are a number of local agencies addressing issues faced by the chronically homeless. Historically, the number of homeless is now far lower than the estimated 6,000 individuals prior to the 1998 landmark Pottinger ruling, and that is in large part attributed to the annual $40 million budget of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, which now offers thousands of beds at homeless shelters throughout South Florida.

Benjamin Waxman, a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU, says the city is now worried about its cosmetic appearance.

“I think what bothers [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.

Proposals now being considered by the city would give police the authority to arrest those homeless people who refuse shelter on three occasions within a 180-day period, as well as confiscate their belongings.

Beyond the ACLU, there are a number of organizations nationwide that advocate for cities avoiding what critics call the “criminalization” of homelessness through arbitrary law enforcement of city codes.

For example, a 2009 report by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless argued that the cost of permanent housing is less than that of criminalizing the typical offenses made by homeless individuals.

The NLCHP / NCH report also highlighted approaches taken by other municipalities such as Portland, Oregon, which enacted a 10-year plan through which outreach workers were able to offer people living on the streets permanent housing.

According to the Miami Herald, the city’s shelters are already at capacity, and advocates for the homeless argue that the city commission’s plans to criminalize the homeless rather than increase funding for additional shelter would be counterproductive.