Robert Pearson and Farrah Milton left the tent they’re living in on SW 2nd St. in downtown Miami on Wednesday morning to find a notice from the city of Miami: “This area will be cleaned on Wednesday November 17th” “They’re coming today,” Pearson said at 8:30 a.m., with Milton, his fiance, by his side. The previous week, a near-identical notice warned of “cleanings” throughout the week of November 15-19 and warned people residing on SW 2nd St. underneath the I-95 overpass to remove their personal belongings from the site. But the cleanup, which sent a wave of fear and anxiety throughout the blocks under the overpass where some 20 tents are pitched, did not happen.
At around 9:30 a.m. the homeless people on the block noticed police cars, a water tank and a dump truck with a claw for picking things up off the street, which they recognized from previous “cleaning” efforts, where police removed them and threw away their belongings. Police and outreach officers from the Miami Homeless Assistance Program, commonly known as “green shirts,” spoke to homeless people, several of whom accepted shelter beds. After about an hour, the police cars, water truck and dump truck left without having done the cleaning the notices had warned about, leaving homeless people and advocates confused.
The notice was posted by the city of Miami’s Department of Human Services. The DHS has not responded to multiple requests for comment and clarification about the cleaning notices. Outreach officers at the scene said they were not authorized to speak about what they were doing. Police officers only said they were “working” and “doing outreach,” and would not give any more information. Homeless people like Pearson and Milton are worried about their fate after getting the notice. The couple both grew up in Liberty City and most recently were living in West Palm Beach before becoming homeless about a month ago. They say they’ve been trying to get shelter beds but so far have been unable to. “They say they’re coming today but where are we supposed to go?” Pearson said. “It’s dangerous out here,” said Milton, who has medical issues, including seizures. “But we don’t have any other choice.”
Many other homeless people say that shelters can feel like prisons and have grown a distrust for Miami’s authorities after having their things destroyed during cleanings in the past. “They took everything from me. I lost my birth certificate, my Social Security card and my medications during one of those cleanups,” said Jerry Mobley, 58, who has been living on the streets for 11 years. “Them coming in with all that muscle like that, how can I trust them?” The posted warnings about cleanings come around two weeks after the Miami City Commission passed a controversial ordinance that outlaws encampments and says that officers should arrest violators who refuse to go to a shelter. The ordinance, which was met with fierce opposition from housing rights’ activists, will go into effect on November 28. David Peery, an attorney and homeless advocate, said that he was confused by the warning signs posted. “The anxiety is thick in the air,” Peery said. “These are not just cleanups. In the past, they’ve been violent actions that traumatize people. And we don’t know what’s going on now and how it’s gonna be implemented.”
A Miami City Commission vote that homeless advocates had been dreading for weeks happened last Thursday after it was deferred on Oct. 14
Despite several attempts from housing rights groups to stop the passage of an anti-camping ordinance, it passed 4-1 in a final reading with only Commissioner Ken Russell dissenting.
The ordinance, which will go into effect in less than 30 days, prohibits temporary housing structures and encampments on public property, giving police authority to issue warnings or arrest anyone violating the new law.
Officers must offer an alternative to individuals experiencing homelessness who are living in makeshift encampments. After refusal to relocate to a shelter and clear out belongings within two hours, arrests can be made.
“The anti-encampment is not new,” said activist David Peery during public comment. “What’s worse is that we’re going to be paying more money to not solve the problem. Arrests are simply a way to make homelessness worse.”
District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo, who sponsored the ordinance, showed a documentary-style video prior to the vote to support his belief that Miami’s homeless population consists of drug addicts.
The video shows Carollo going around asking individuals on the street if they were homeless and whether they’d be interested in being directed to a nearby shelter. For reasons not specified in the video, a majority of the people Carollo spoke with turned down his offer.
Carollo told commissioners that he believed it was because guidelines and rules at homeless shelters make it difficult for addicts to continue doing drugs.
“What I’m not going to do any longer is [feed] the beast of homelessness,” he said during the meeting, explaining that the city has spent too much money addressing its homelessness problem. “Our residents are going to be treated with the same courtesy, professionalism and the same rights that homeless people are in our streets. Our residents are the ones that have become second-class citizens and it’s not right [in] our society.”
Alongside the ordinance, commissioners passed the “Adopt a Homeless” resolution, also sponsored by Carollo, in a 3-2 vote.
Through the resolution, city residents can sign up to provide necessities like a bed, food, water and electricity to homeless individuals.
City Manager Art Noriega is responsible for maintaining a list of volunteers and finding financial assistance programs to “reimburse” residents, eliminating a financial burden on the city.
“We don’t have to provide a 5-star hotel service of encampment,” added Carollo.
David Peery, who previously experienced homelessness as a victim of the 2008 recession, knows far too well how one unfortunate circumstance can drastically alter the trajectory of someone’s life.
Last Thursday, the attorney and activist channeled those painful memories into a demonstration at Miami City Hall. There, he encouraged a coalition of social justice and homeless advocacy groups who joined him in protest of a new ordinance, sponsored by District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo, that makes encampments on public property illegal – and could potentially result in the arrest of hundreds of people.
Bearing signs condemning the criminalization of the homeless, dozens of demonstrators gathered on the lawn to chant “Housing is a human right. We need houses, not handcuffs,” in unison. Among them: formerly and currently homeless individuals wanting to share their stories with anyone who would listen.
“I felt like our voices needed to be heard. That’s why I came to protest,” said Cathedral Beauford, whose circumstances forced her into homelessness. “I’ve been in the shelter for years, I’ve lived on the streets and have been harassed by officers and security guards. I don’t want to go through that anymore.”
In presenting and supporting the ordinances, Carollo controversially implied that homelessness is a choice, and spoke of people purposefully coming to the city to engage in drugs and live on the streets.
“Many people in the community think that people want to be homeless, that they choose to be on the street and reject services,” said longtime activist Jeff Weinberger of the October 22nd Alliance. “None of this is true. It’s that the alternatives to living on the streets that the system presents are not real solutions.”
Weinberger blames low-wage jobs and the rising cost of living in Miami, which now surpasses Los Angeles as the second-most expensive place to live in the U.S.
“Unless we address the systemic reality, nothing is going to change. What we were there to oppose is a law that would have kept that cycle going,” said Weinberger.
Peery, the founder of MCARE, says he couldn’t fathom the devastating impact a law like this could have had on his life if it were proposed back when he was living on the streets more than a decade ago.
After falling behind on rent after being laid off from H&R Block, he found himself locked out of his Miami apartment one Saturday morning coming back from a trip to a local charity that offered free breakfast for those with financial struggles.
He did not anticipate the locks would be changed without warning or that he’d spend the next few days in jail, accused of being a drug addict trying to break into the apartment, though his name was on the lease agreement.
Unable to retrieve the possessions inside his home, Peery was left with nothing and forced out on the streets to join the thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Miami.
“I lost everything I owned. Every single thing. I only had a couple of weeks’ worth of money to stay in hotels but that ran out,” he said. “For the next year and a half where I couldn’t get a job, I slept on the streets. I didn’t have familial support because I’d been estranged from my family.”
According to data released by the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust last November, 57% of people experiencing homelessness in the county are Black, despite making up only 18% of the population. More than 40% of the county’s homeless population is in the City of Miami.
“I have a law degree but that didn’t help me,” Peery said. “Once you’re homeless, it just compounds a cycle. I couldn’t get proper clothes that weren’t smelly or wrinkled so I could get to job interviews and it just got worse.”
If it hadn’t been for local resources and friends who helped him get a part-time job and temporary housing, he said he might not have made it to where he is today.
“That eventually got me off the streets, but you have to look at the systemic issues. The longer you’re out there, the harder it is to get out,” said Peery. “Homelessness is intensely traumatizing, so we’ve been working for a number of years now to mobilize people, to protest against efforts like this (ordinance).”
Criminalizing hard times
Peery’s experience compelled him to fight to preserve the Pottinger consent decree, a 1998 settlement that protected the rights of homeless people from unconstitutional acts by the city. The decree was terminated in 2019. Since then, activists say the city has come full circle to start enforcing codes the original settlement prevented.
“We’ve seen, over a number of years, that the city can comply with its duty to keep the streets clean and still respect the rights of people who are sleeping on the streets,” said Peery. “The thing that makes this ordinance so crazy is not only that a single tent or piece of cardboard can be considered to be an encampment, but also a multitude of possessions can now get you arrested or fined under this law.”
The ordinance, referred to as item 10623, was up for a second reading at last week’s commission meeting after passing with a 4-1 vote last month on the first reading. District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell was the opposing vote. It calls for the amendment of Chapter 37 in the city’s code of ordinances titled “Offenses-Miscellaneous.” The chapter outlines violations for behaviors ranging from malicious defacement and aggressive panhandling to living in vehicles and sleeping on streets.
Ordinance 10623 requests that a new section be added to the chapter to prohibit encampment on public property and define penalties for people who violate the code. The amendment enforces criminal or civil penalties for homeless individuals who are asked to leave their makeshift living space but refuse.
It’s one of many attempts by the commission to address homelessness in Miami.
In February, the group voted for a “City of Miami Street Clean Up and Encampment Resource Plan” that called for the sweeping of encampments in neighborhoods like Overtown, downtown Miami and Little Havana, a protocol increased to twice a week in April. Many housing unstable individuals say they’ve lost prized possessions during the sweeps.
Commissioners passed an ordinance last year that limits public feeding of people living on the streets by restricting where and when food distribution can take place.
The call for a collaborative plan
Following the outcry from activists and the Thursday protests, District 5 Commissioner Jeffrey Watson pleaded with his colleagues to defer a final decision on the ordinance to an Oct. 28 meeting.
“The reason we deferred it is to have a conversation with those activists who say they have a solution,” said Watson addressing those who approached the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting. “For those that want to talk about it, as you have asked, let the process take its course, see what then comes out of it, and you can come back (Oct. 28) … We are concerned, otherwise, we would probably have moved forward.”
He asked activists to propose solutions that would work in favor of both the homeless and the city.
Despite intense disapproval and outburst from Carollo, who sarcastically suggested that the issue could be resolved if each demonstrator adopted a homeless person, many of the activists said they were happy to hear of the deferment.
“I think the fact that we’ve been pushing against this ordinance for quite a long time and editorializing it … that combined with the large presence that came to oppose the ordinance is what made [commissioners] pause,” said Weinberger. “It made them think ‘Maybe we’re not doing this the right way.’ It gives them time to think a little bit and gives us time to propose some firm alternatives.”
“We’re looking to formulate a plan that includes all the stakeholders to bring all the residents, not just the unhoused community, to sign on as well,” said Peery, hinting at a partnership with the Homeless Trust. “There has never been a plan where those diverse interests have all united together. But we think that this is a unique opportunity for us to do that.”
The first step, say both men, is to approach commissioners with demands that require a stop to encampment sweeps and the disposing of people’s possessions.
“With this commission, I don’t feel optimistic that they’re going to change their tune, but what we’re going to do is keep in the struggle,” said Weinberger. “Keep making our demands and bringing good people in the community to the struggle to pressure [commissioners] too, and we want to get to the point where the commission is not going to have a choice but to do what’s right.”