Your view: Why Miami should reject the anti-camping ordinance

On Thursday, the Miami City Commission will vote on an ordinance that will prevent homeless people from sleeping in camping tents or temporary shelters on public property. Barbara “Bobbie” Ibarra, executive director of Miami Coalition for the Homeless, weighs in on the proposal and why the Commission should reject it.

Due to the lack of readily available shelter beds in Miami, individuals experiencing homelessness must improvise to survive and are now facing criminal penalties under proposed ordinances at the City Commission.  If you become homeless in Miami, it will currently take 30 days to get into an emergency shelter – 30 days – at minimum. It is difficult, if not impossible, for many of us to imagine living and sleeping on the streets – exposed to the whims of nature and man.  According to a homeless census conducted by the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust in January 2015, there are more than 600 people living unsheltered in the City of Miami.  As a result of the dearth of shelter beds and the incredibly long waiting period to get into emergency shelter, Miami’s homeless individuals have no choice but by necessity to sleep outdoors. Some homeless individuals have resorted to sleeping in pop-up camping tents as a last-resort shelter, relying on a thin piece of nylon to stand between them and the city as they sleep.

In February, the City Commission voted unanimously to make this life-sustaining conduct an arrestable, criminal offense. Under the proposed Anti-Camping ordinance, it will be unlawful for any person to “live temporarily in a camp facility or outdoors.” Originally, the ordinance included a ban on items such as bedrolls, blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags. In response to community feedback, Commissioner Sarnoff will recommend that this particular provision be removed from the ordinance.  Even if amended, the Anti-Camping ordinance seeks to criminalize homelessness in the most direct way imaginable by prohibiting “living temporarily in a camp facility or outdoors.” Living temporarily outdoors under necessity is the very basic definition of being homeless.

Unfortunately, the City’s actions to criminalize homelessness are not uncommon. The criminalization of homelessness is a growing trend, with cities across the United States passing legislation to ban acts such as sleeping in public, outdoor feeding, and “urban camping.” Criminalizing life-sustaining conduct does not address the social or economic needs of those suffering in extreme poverty, but only further marginalizes them. These ordinances give police officers the legal authority to approach the homeless for innocent conduct and to force homeless individuals to move along under threat of arrest. If arrested, homeless individuals are driven further into poverty and face imprisonment, criminal fines, and an arrest record that may impact their ability to land a job or find housing.

If our City Commission passes the proposed Anti-Camping ordinance, Miami is set to join the growing list of U.S. cities that tread upon the civil and human rights of its poorest residents.

As efforts to criminalize homelessness continue nationwide, both national and international authorities have been outspoken against the practice. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has stated that homeless criminalization is an ineffective, cost-inefficient policy and that such laws “unduly restrict constitutionally protected liberties.” In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned the criminalization of homelessness in the United States as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” If our City Commission passes the proposed Anti-Camping ordinance, Miami is set to join the growing list of U.S. cities that tread upon the civil and human rights of its poorest residents.

While Tampa and Fort Lauderdale have passed anti-homeless laws, the City of Miami expressly adopted a policy to protect the constitutional rights of homeless persons, to prevent arrests and harassment of homeless persons, and to prevent the destruction of the property of homeless persons. This commitment was the result of the Pottinger Settlement Agreement between the City of Miami and the American Civil Liberties Union. Under the 1998 Pottinger Agreement, the City of Miami agreed that it would not arrest homeless individuals for committing certain misdemeanors that a homeless individual commits by the mere fact that they are without shelter, like eating, sleeping, sitting, congregating, or walking in public.

In 2014, the Pottinger Agreement was renegotiated and modified, but the primary protections remain in place. The “Life-Sustaining Conduct Misdemeanors” protected include sleeping in a public park or vehicle, bathing in public, and urinating or defecating in public when there is no open public restroom within a ¼ mile. While there are exceptions under Pottinger, the police generally cannot arrest a homeless individual accused of a protected misdemeanor unless there is available shelter and the homeless person refuses to be taken there. A major challenge during the renegotiation of Pottinger in 2014 was that there was no available shelter to offer in Miami. While police may now offer homeless individuals a stay on a mat under a covered pavilion in the courtyard of Camillus House, these mats are not a long-term alternative to a shelter bed.

The proposed Anti-Camping ordinance, which follows directly on the heels of the newly enacted Urination/Defecation ordinance, indicates that the City of Miami intends not to comply with the Pottinger Consent Decree and is at the very least, acting contrary to the spirit of the agreement, and, at worst, purposefully and unilaterally modifying the protections granted to homeless individuals under Pottinger.

The unanimously approved Anti-Camping ordinance will create a new misdemeanor if it passes at second hearing during this Thursday’s City Commission meeting. The penalty for the criminal offense of “Camping” or living temporarily outdoors will be a fine of up to $500, or imprisonment for up to 60 days, or both. There is no provision in this ordinance that recognizes the City’s policy to protect the civil rights of homeless persons, no provision that requires police to offer shelter before arrest. Surely the act of living and sleeping outdoors is protected as life-sustaining conduct and is at minimum within the spirit of the Agreement, especially when there are no shelter beds available. The proposed Anti-Camping ordinance, which follows directly on the heels of the newly enacted Urination/Defecation ordinance, indicates that the City of Miami intends not to comply with the Pottinger Consent Decree and is at the very least, acting contrary to the spirit of the agreement, and, at worst, purposefully and unilaterally modifying the protections granted to homeless individuals under Pottinger.

The City Commission is understandably attempting to respond to growing pressure from local business owners and residents who are frustrated with the growing number of tents downtown. The Commission anticipates that these ordinance will help officers place homeless individuals into care.  However, the proposed approach does not engender trust between the homeless and city officials.  Further, an attempt to engage homeless individuals to enter care through threat of arrest is not socially responsible, nor is it a proper legal response or evidence-based practice for successfully engaging homeless individuals.

Advocates agree that homelessness challenges in downtown Miami need to continue to be addressed. Rather than enacting cost-inefficient criminalization laws to address homelessness, the City Commission should work collaboratively with experienced service providers and homeless advocates to develop informed and effective legislation to address homelessness in Miami, policies that might include support of ongoing initiatives to address chronic homelessness, an expansion of the “Housing First” permanent supportive housing program in Miami, increased affordable housing opportunities for the extremely low-income, and an increase in funding for shelter beds and services.

The City Commission will vote on the proposed Anti-Camping ordinance at the City Commission Meeting this Thursday, March 12th at City Hall. Each City Commissioner should reevaluate Miami’s current approach to addressing homelessness and extreme poverty and vote against the proposed Anti-Camping ordinance. Miami should distance itself from the list of municipalities that criminalize homelessness and openly subject their most vulnerable residents to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Further, the City of Miami must reaffirm its commitment to protecting the civil rights of its homeless residents and acknowledge the humanity and dignity of all Miamians, regardless of housing or economic status.