Longform

Someplace Like Home

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To illustrate his point, Tasco points to a man who is strutting like a chicken, weaving erratically around government workers on their lunch break. The man, clearly a whack-whack, isn't wearing any shoes, and his feet are black with filth. Tasco shakes his head. "Would you want to eat lunch next to him?"

Tasco doesn't smell so good himself. He is one of about 4,000 homeless people the Miami model hasn't reached. The figure--roughly the same as Dallas' homeless population--may seem high for a city like Miami, which is closer to Minneapolis in size. To appreciate the gains Miami has made, Fernandez says you have to consider what the city was like in the early 1990s.

"Third World," Fernandez says. "It was totally awful. Little shacks being built out of cardboard and tin. Right in the heart of downtown."

Fernandez is talking about the infamous shantytowns that sprouted up beneath the city's overpasses in the early 1990s. The most notorious was the Mud Flats, so called because it turned into a mud bowl during hurricane season. It was located just around the corner from the government center, under an overpass, and it was home to hundreds of people, rats and disease.

Back then, street feeders made the situation worse. They'd pull up to the shantytowns bearing food, clothing and a message from God. They did a good job keeping bellies full, but they left behind mountains of trash. And the homeless were still homeless.

Today, small groups of people still gather under overpasses and some street feeders still operate. But the shantytowns are long gone, and the panhandlers and squeegee guys who used to occupy seemingly every street corner are now a rare sight. What's more, most of Miami's street feeders are part of the system: Instead of randomly working the streets, they take turns preparing the daily meals inside the HAC's stainless steel kitchens, sparing them the cost of buying food.

Ironically, Fernandez says, the shantytowns were a product of harsh city ordinances designed to control the homeless population. In the late 1980s, Miami cops jailed anyone they saw panhandling or sleeping in the streets, among other outlawed behaviors. The practice attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which in 1988 sued the city for violating the constitutional rights of the homeless.

The lawsuit set off a disastrous population shift. Before, "There was no tolerance out there," Fernandez says. "The police were just going to arrest you and sweep you off the street, literally. As this lawsuit was working its way through the courts, the city backed off and said, 'We're not going to do anything,' and there was a shift to the other extreme. All of a sudden you had these shantytowns literally grow up overnight."

In 1991, the federal judge in the case delivered the city a sobering blow. In what is now known as the Pottinger ruling, the judge sided with the ACLU and ordered the city to create "safe havens" where the homeless couldn't be busted for being homeless. The ruling established a local precedent that homelessness is not a crime, and it found the city guilty of failing to offer the homeless any real alternatives to jail.

The city appealed and, four long years later, the case was settled. As part of the deal, the city had to cough up $1.5 million, part of which was doled out to homeless people who could demonstrate that they were unfairly arrested. But the case had a more important outcome--call it a truce--that governs the way police and the homeless now interact. Today, a Miami cop can't arrest a homeless person for sleeping in public, for example, without first offering him the option of going to the HAC or some other emergency shelter. In other words, the homeless can now choose between a shelter or jail. And if there are no shelter beds available, as is often the case in Miami, the cops walk away.

Fernandez says the homeless are well aware of their new rights, and many have learned how to manipulate the system with false promises to reform themselves.

"You'll have the ones, even the chronic people, who will flag down the police officer because tonight they don't feel like sleeping on the sidewalk. They know they can tell the officer they want to go in under the Pottinger protocol, and in the morning they'll leave," Fernandez says. "They use the HAC as an overnight shelter. It defeats the purpose."

At the same time, though, the new system gives homeless people, particularly addicts rutted in denial, fewer opportunities to whine and greater exposure to people who are trying to help them. "The more savvy homeless person will say, 'No one's helping me.' You can't make that argument anymore," Fernandez says. "Oh, you need help? OK. There's the outreach team right there waiting for you to go over and get engaged in services."

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley

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