No free lunch: Miami to vote on licensing feeding of homeless
By Catherine Lackner
A proposed Miami ordinance that would make it illegal for unauthorized persons or groups to feed the homeless downtown won a vote of support last week from directors of Miami's Downtown Development Authority.
The Miami City Commission is to consider the ordinance next month.
Authority and City Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff said he hopes passage will also open the door to repeal a 1988 legal settlement that bars arrest of street people for many reasons unless they refuse to accept available shelter.
Well-intentioned people and groups cause problems when they come to the city's core bearing meals in disposable boxes and then depart after handing the food to the homeless, said Alyce Robertson, authority executive director.
"It's affecting Park West and the north side of the" Central Business District, she said. "The trash, rats and feces have gotten to the level that it needs the attention of the city commission and" the authority.
"This is not just a Park West issue," said authority director Oscar Rodriguez. "They're all over the place. It's a sympathetic issue that doesn't have an easy solution."
The proposed ordinance would require anyone who wants to feed the homeless to get a license, and would also mandate how the food is to be handled, that trash will be removed, and that portable bathrooms will be available.
Such a law in Houston is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is expected to come to trial in about a year, Mr. Sarnoff said.
"I'm a lawyer; I love lawsuits," he continued. "There are always remedies and ramifications, things you can do, until homelessness starts to go in the opposite direction."
Miami suffers disproportionately from homeless issues, Ms. Robertson said. When last tallied, Miami-Dade County had 712 street people. Of those, 465 were in the City of Miami and 286 in downtown. Because 54% of emergency shelter beds are in the city core, the homeless often find themselves there.
As to the 1988 legal settlement, often labeled Pottinger, "they didn't think it through," Mr. Sarnoff said.
The result of a suit against the City of Miami by the American Civil Liberties Union, the settlement mandates that street people can only be arrested for eating, sleeping or congregating in public if shelter is available and the person refuses to accept it. Prior to the settlement, homeless people complained they were harassed by police and jailed for minor offenses and that police destroyed their possessions.
"I'm an ultra-conservative — everyone should be held accountable," Mr. Sarnoff said. "We've begun the process to fix the sidewalks, but so long as there are people defecating and peeing on the streets, it's not going to do any good."
"Pottinger is baloney," said Bruno Barreiro, authority director and Miami-Dade County commissioner. "There's an industry built around the homeless issue. Just like we have code enforcement, we should mandate that it's illegal to sleep on the streets."
"The solution is not to simply push these people off," said authority director Alan Ojeda, who also serves on the board of Carrfour Supportive Housing, an organization that provides permanent housing and help to formerly homeless people. "We've built homes and integrated 1,200 people into society."
"This ad hoc way of feeding is contrary to the way the homeless organizations say it should be handled," said authority director Tony Alonso. Because of the work of local organizations, he said, "We have a program that is a model for the rest of the nation. We no longer have the circumstances that led to Pottinger. If this opens the door to revising Pottinger, so be it."
"Pottinger has done more harm to downtown than anywhere else," said authority director Jose Goyanes. He suggested, and the board agreed, that the authority ask Jay Solowsky, the authority's outside counsel, to compile research on the settlement's effect on downtown in an effort to overturn it.