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Bambi Nicole Kuttkuhn was afraid when police came through the I-95 overpass on NW 11th last month, an area where she and some 60 homeless people resided. She said they took some of her belongings, saying they’d been stolen, and forced her and the others to leave.
After three weeks living in a vacant lot about a mile away, the 43-year-old is back, but worried about a proposed city ordinance that would give the police new powers and could make such clearings more frequent.
City commissioners last week gave initial approval to an ordinance that prohibits encampments on public property and in entryways. It would give police officers the authority to arrest people experiencing homelessness, as long as they’d been offered a shelter bed. The city also allocated $7 million in federal funding for homeless services.
Proponents argue that Miami residents are afraid of encampments that block city sidewalks and leave litter and human waste strewn about, but critics charge the ordinance criminalizes homelessness and will only end up making the problem worse.
The new legislation, which is scheduled for a final vote Oct. 14, comes almost three years after a federal judge rolled back a consent decree known as the Pottinger Agreement. Meant to protect people without housing in Miami from police harassment, the agreement specifically prevented Miami Police from arresting homeless people for “life sustaining” activities, such as sleeping on the sidewalk, urinating in public or cooking fires. Housing advocates say the new ordinance is a sharp escalation in punitive tactics after the Pottinger Agreement was dissolved by Federal Judge Federico Moreno in 2019.
Commissioner Joe Carollo sponsored the ordinance, which passed 4-1 and would take effect 30 days after the final vote. Commissioner Ken Russell was the lone no vote. The measure defines “encampments” as the presence of any tent or temporary living structure for human habitation, people using heating devices such as camping stoves, grills or heaters and/or the “unauthorized accumulation of personal property,” of up to three cubic feet.
Police would be instructed to give a written warning to violators, allow them up to two hours to gather their belongings and offer them a shelter bed. If the violator refuses a space in a shelter, officers can arrest the person.
But many homeless people say shelters are worse than being on the streets — they often encounter violence and drugs inside shelters and say it can feel more like a jail than a shelter.
“Shelters can be scary,” Kuttkuhn said. “You never know who you’re going to be in there with — rapists, dangerous people. There’s a lot of fighting, and you have to follow all their rules. You’re not free in the shelter.”
Originally from Michigan, Kuttkuhn moved to Miami with her boyfriend and lived with his family until the couple broke up. Depressed and hopeless, she said she got a drink one night and relapsed to drug use. She’s been on and off the streets of Miami for six years.
“We can’t arrest our way out of homelessness,” said David Peery, an attorney, plaintiff in the Pottinger Agreement and chairman of the Advocacy Committee of the Camillus Health Concern Consumer Advisory Board, a nonprofit that provides healthcare and social services to homeless and poor people in Miami-Dade County.
“It’s a social justice issue and a housing issue, not a criminal issue, ” he added. “Scattering people to cover homelessness up, it works for short term goals but it traumatizes people and makes it harder for them to accept services and eventually get off the street permanently.”.
Carollo said in an interview that his proposed ban on encampments on public property is a response to complaints from Downtown residents and people who live in parts of Little Havana where homeless people block sidewalks. He described Miami’s homeless population as mostly out-of-towners, many of whom have drug addictions.
“Our residents are so tired. They can’t even walk their own sidewalks because they’re covered by tents, by sofas, by lounge chairs, by all kinds of things,” Carollo said. “They cannot cross or walk through the sidewalk. The elderly, in particular, are afraid as they walk in front of these encampments.”
Carollo’s proposal found support from the Downtown Neighbors Alliance (DNA), a coalition of homeowners’ associations from condo buildings who complain about people lacking housing setting up tents, urinating and defecating on Downtown sidewalks.
Addressing commissioners before the vote last week, DNA President James Torres compared conditions to those in a third-world country.
“That’s what many Downtown individuals feel that Downtown looks like because of the homeless problem,” Torres said.
Miami commissioners last week also approved two other Carollo-sponsored measures aimed at people experiencing homelessness. City Manager Art Noriega was told to order cleanings of streets and sidewalks three times a week where those without homes congregate and he was instructed to find an area or areas where temporary encampments could be permitted. Earlier this year, Carollo suggested Virginia Key could host a temporary tent city.
Carollo sharply rejected criticism that the city would be criminalizing homelessness under the ordinance, noting that Miami has spent millions on homeless programs and arguing that it shouldn’t grant unchecked freedoms to people who choose to live on the street and resist shelter.
“The homeless issue that we have in the city of Miami is mainly about people that are out there because they want to be out there,” Carollo said.
“Criminalization is exactly what it is,” said Peery, the attorney. “This is an ordinance that establishes criminal punishment. That’s criminalization.” Peery said he’s seen a stark change in the city’s approach to people without housing since 2018, when Mayor Francis Suarez took office and the city sought to overturn the Pottinger Agreement.
Under the ordinance, homeless people could be charged with a misdemeanor for creating an illegal encampments on public property and face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. Violators could also be given a civil fine from a code compliance officer.
Mayor Suarez’s plan
While the proposed encampment ban stirs debate, another initiative aims to bring the number of homeless people in Miami to “functional zero” — a term Suarez used in public statements after the Pottinger consent decree was dissolved. “I don’t look at it as what more can we do in terms of arresting and policing,” he told the Miami Herald in 2019. “It’s more about what we can do to get to the functional zero.”
On the same day the encampment ban’s initial vote, commissioners last week approved a $7 million budget for Suarez’s plan to drastically reduce the homelessness population. The allocation was part of a larger $137 million spending plan that is funded by the federal American Rescue Plan.
In a statement, Suarez said his office will work with police, the Homeless Trust, Camillus House, the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery and faith-based groups to reach people have have previously refused shelter.
“This plan provides resources for the homeless which includes specialized mobile teams for the service resistant homeless, workforce courses which will guarantee jobs, and identifies new housing options for the homeless population — whether through temporary and/or permanent housing,” Suarez said.
In June 2020, with the consent decree no longer in place, the city put limitations on charity groups feeding people experiencing homelessness and began clearing out encampments more frequently, according to housing rights advocates.
Jeffrey Snow, 58, a retired teacher who lost his spot in public housing in Liberty City after having a stroke, lives underneath the I-95 on-ramp on SW 2nd Ave in Downtown. He’s hoping to get into an apartment through Carrfour, a nonprofit group, but says he’d prefer to get arrested and go to jail than go to a Miami shelter.
“I’d rather take my chances out here,” he said.