By Scott Keyes
Being poor could soon be a crime in the city of Miami.
As though life weren’t already difficult enough for people who can’t afford regular housing, they could soon find themselves thrown in jail and their possessions confiscated if they’re caught engaging in certain everyday activities in public.
Before the late 1990s, Miami police frequently arrested homeless people for such “crimes” as sleeping on park benches, eating on sidewalks, or congregating in public places.
But in 1998, the city of Miami came to a landmark agreement, known as Pottinger v. City of Miami, whereby police officers were instructed not to arrest homeless people they caught committing minor “quality of life” offenses, but instead offer them a bed in a nearby homeless shelter. This new emphasis on providing homeless people with housing has been remarkably successful. In the 15 years since Pottinger, the number of people living on the streets has dropped from approximately 6,000 to 351, largely due to more shelters and support.
Despite the program’s success, one Miami City Commissioner wants to back out of the deal and resume arresting homeless people for living on the streets.
Marc Sarnoff wants the city to renege on its 1998 agreement and resume arresting homeless people. Specifically, Sarnoff and his allies on the City Commission have hired a law firm to try to modify the agreement so police can arrest anyone who blocks a sidewalk, cooks a meal in a public area using a fire, litters, urinates or defecates in public, or engages in lewd conduct, rather than offering those folks a bed to sleep.
Sarnoff argues that homeless people in the downtown business district are a “chronic problem.” Indeed, as the Miami Herald points out, “Most local shelters are at capacity, meaning police can do little to punish the homeless who urinate in the street or light cooking fires in public parks.” Instead of vying for more funding to support the hundreds of homeless people who reside in Miami, Sarnoff’s solution is to jail them for living on the streets.
To learn more about the criminalization of homelessness, read the 2009 report “Homes Not Handcuffs” by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless.