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City Ignores Plight of the Homeless, Advocates Say

April 16, 1991

MIAMI (AP) _ Miami embraces tourists. It welcomes international trade. It vies for a major league baseball team.

But it ignores or afflicts its homeless, their advocates say - prodding them to move on, arresting them, confiscating or destroying their belongings.

Ask Eugene Tate. Homeless on and off since he was released from prison in 1987, he has been swept out of downtown parks repeatedly. Police have stepped up enforcement of an ordinance that vacates parks from dusk to dawn.

″They don’t feel comfortable with people laying on the floor sleeping,″ Tate said, matter-of-factly.

So the 40-year-old Tate and dozens of others have taken up temporary residence in shadowed nooks under the interstate next to Biscayne Boulevard.

But there’s no sanctuary there, either. Underpass dwellers say they’ve been awakened by police who hit them on their feet and turn on sirens, ordering them to pick up their bedrolls and possessions and leave. If they don’t, their belongings can be confiscated and they face arrest.

The homeless are moved around ″just like cows ... with no sense of direction,″ Tate lamented, as cars whizzed by a few feet away.

Advocates say the crackdown is another example of city leaders ignoring the problems of the homeless, and of police ″terrorist tactics.″ The goal is not to help, they say, but to drive the homeless out of this image-conscious city.

The homeless may have their day in court come late June or early July, the tentative trial date for a suit filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city and its police department. It charges that the homeless are harassed and their constitutional rights violated.

U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins already has heard allegations that twice last year, police set ablaze personal property, including a Bible, in the parks. Clothes, bedrolls and medicine were burned, witnesses said.

This conduct was ″especially horrid,″ Atkins said, and he ordered the city to pay a token $2,500 to a non-profit downtown shelter. He also broadened a previous order that police not to destroy items belonging to the homeless.

Though police deny that there is an anti-vagrant squad, one deposition said a ranking Miami police officer called officers in the parks ″my bum busters.″

Assistant city attorney Leon Firtel told Atkins the homeless want to take over the parks: ″The city of Miami says they don’t have the right to do so.″

City officials say the police are simply enforcing the law on sleeping in the parks and that notice was given before the cleanup began.

Otherwise, officials have not been outspoken on the homeless. Mayor Xavier Suarez did not return repeated telephone messages seeking comment for this story over a period of several days.

But activists say the city cracks down whenever the national spotlight is about to come its way. A February sweep of Bicentennial and Lummus parks preceded by two months the Miami Grand Prix, which runs through Bicentennial.

And two years ago, there were mass arrests of the homeless just before the Miami-Nebraska Orange Bowl football game, prompting the ACLU lawsuit.

″It’s just another blatant, naked enforcement tactic designed to harass and intimidate, to push homeless people out from the city, that they are not welcome here,″ said ACLU lawyer Benjamin Waxman. The city ″isn’t taking an active role in remedying the problem,″ he said.

But hostility to the homeless is evident even in quiet times. In November 1988, a city proposal would have allowed police to jail people up to 10 days and fine them $100 for sleeping on city sidewalks. Commissioners voted it down after extensive national media attention.

Harvey Vieth, executive director of Camillus House, a non-profit shelter and soup kitchen, noted Miami has absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants over the years, ″people who had no homes and didn’t speak the language, with not nearly enough funding or federal participation.

″I’m saying if you were able to absorb this, all it takes to take care of 5,000 homeless people is the will.″

″Miami is known as a place that does very little or nothing for the homeless,″ said Christine Hildner, executive director of the Miami Coalition for Care to the Homeless.

Miami has only one government-funded shelter run jointly with the county, 100-bed Beckham Hall. The city does provide funds for some programs such as substance abuse treatment that indirectly benefit the homeless.

But Miami falls far short compared to cities with similar homeless populations. Boston, for example, spends about $4 million a year.

Joseph Keel, 49, has been homeless for about a year and lives in an underpass of Interstate 395. His is an elaborate setup, with a couple of mattresses ringed by shopping carts stuffed with food, clothing and pots.

Keel worries about being asked to move because he has more than most to carry. If you leave anything behind, police will ″get your stuff when you’re not there and throw it away,″ he said.

Keel, who can’t read or write, said what the homeless really need is help finding jobs.

He says he has trouble finding work since he was shot in the left knee, about 1 1/2 years ago. When he does work in a day labor pool, he’ll make about $22 after lunch and transportation costs for eight hours of backbreaking labor.

It’s going to take a lot more than the city’s current effort to help people like him get back on their feet, Keel said.

City leaders ″need to sit down and think. They need to come out here and be on the streets, and see just how it is.″

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