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Despite Coronavirus Warnings, Miami Area Police Are Still Arresting Hundreds of Homeless People

As of April 30, one in three unsheltered people have been arrested in Miami-Dade County since a local state of emergency was declared in March.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

Between March 12—when Miami-Dade County instituted a local state of emergency to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus—and April 30, police departments within Miami-Dade County arrested homeless people at least 313 times. Among the arrestees were at least 41 people charged with petit theft or attempted petit theft; 13 for simple battery; 26 for misdemeanor trespassing; 12 for misdemeanor criminal mischief; seven for drinking in public, and two for possessing or selling marijuana. Police also held at least 62 homeless people for outstanding warrants. On March 27, Miami area officers arrested two homeless men for unlawfully using a dairy crate—a Florida law that effectively allows police to arrest homeless people for sitting. 

According to jail-booking records reviewed by The Appeal, Miami area officers also arrested at least three people listed as “homeless” for violating the city’s nighttime curfew that went into effect on March 27. Advocates for the city’s homeless say that it’s both counterproductive and absurd for law enforcement to arrest houseless people for not sheltering in place.

The arrests came despite the fact that the Miami-Dade County Police Department, City of Miami Police Department, and the Miami-Dade County state attorney’s office encouraged officers not to make arrests unless they are critical to public safety as COVID-19 spreads in the county’s jails. As of the end of April, more than 300 people incarcerated in Miami-Dade’s jails have reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus.  “The State Attorney has consistently encouraged our law enforcement partners to increase their use of alternatives to custodial arrest like warnings, issuing civil citations, and promises to appear particularly in light of our present COVID-19 concerns,” Ed Griffith, a spokesperson for the state attorney’s office, wrote in an email to The Appeal. Griffith also said prosecutors are releasing as many people as possible without asking for bail. “Low level offenders who are arrested by the police are almost universally being released on their own recognizance (ROR) with a future court date or being released through Miami-Dade Pre-Trial Services as part of the ongoing effort to prioritize jail space for dangerous or violent individuals and prevent the spread of COVID.”

There are approximately 1,000 chronically homeless people living on Miami-Dade County’s streets, while another 2,620 reside in shelters, according to the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust. This means that, despite the risks of booking homeless people into county jails, Miami-area police have instead arrested about 30 percent of the county’s unsheltered homeless population.

In the seven weeks before the county’s emergency order, homeless people constituted 6 percent of the county’s 6,765 arrests. In the seven weeks after the order, such arrests made up nearly 9 percent of the total 3,526 arrests countywide. (Arrests of people listed as “address unknown” in booking records have dropped more precipitously, but it’s unclear how many of those people are chronically homeless.)

Of the 313 homeless arrests, 297 occurred within the city of Miami; the Miami Police Department did not respond to multiple requests from The Appeal for comment. 

There are 35 police departments in Miami-Dade County—34 for municipalities within the county and one countywide department—and Miami’s city police have been accused of harassing and violating the civil rights of homeless people in the rapidly gentrifying downtown neighborhood. In court records filed in 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union accused city officers of spraying homeless people with power washers to clear downtown encampments.

Advocates for homeless people told The Appeal that the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, the county’s main agency serving that population, was unprepared for the coronavirus crisis and has not used its $90 million annual budget to set up emergency showers or housing in hotel rooms. Since 2004, the Homeless Trust has been run by the wealthy, outspoken Ron Book, one of Florida’s most powerful and well-connected lobbyists. (One of Book’s major clients is the private-prison corporation GEO Group. Critics have complained that Book’s dual roles as a homeless advocate and prison lobbyist may be a conflict of interest.) Book, who holds no background in public health or social work, has long opposed building outdoor showers or toilets for the homeless because he says they encourage people to live on the streets.

“The Homeless Trust is abdicating its responsibility to protect the homeless,” David Peery, a longtime homeless rights activist who has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told The Appeal. “That’s partly because the leadership believes you have to make life for the homeless as uncomfortable as possible to force them into services. That’s a view that’s not supported by a shred of evidence.”

In an email to The Appeal, a spokesperson for the Homeless Trust wrote that, as of May 6, it had moved more than 400 people into “emergency shelters” and had an additional 150 rooms available. The spokesperson said that the Homeless Trust  is currently housing all unsheltered seniors 65 and older regardless of COVID-19 diagnosis, all “willing” homeless people at high-risk for severe illness, and anyone else “unable to secure a traditional emergency shelter bed.” In addition to housing people, the spokesperson wrote, the agency is also providing three daily meals, laundry services, and some medical services.

Book did not respond to messages from The Appeal. But last month Book told the Miami Herald that although he has been moving homeless people into hotels for “days and days and days,” he “can’t afford” hotel rooms for everyone. Book then told his critics to “kiss my butt.”

South Florida cities like Miami have historically been hostile to homeless people. In 2007, the Miami New Times reported that, because of draconian state laws that Book lobbied to enact, a group of sex offenders was forced to live in a tent city underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which spans Biscayne Bay. 

Advocates and the ACLU have also said that Miami violated a 1998 consent decree prohibiting city officers from harassing or arresting homeless people for any “life-sustaining” conduct that occurred in public. In February 2019, the city convinced a federal court to vacate that agreement.  City attorneys argued the agreement was no longer necessary and that the Miami Police Department should be trusted after two decades to handle homeless people with care. 

As the ACLU appeals the 2019 decision, advocates say Miami police are making low-level arrests and are clearing encampments. Dr. Armen Henderson, the University of Miami physician who was handcuffed by Miami police in April while loading supplies for homeless people into his van, told The Appeal he has heard of at least 15 instances of Miami police officers destroying tents since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“The Homeless Trust has not been a good advocate during this crisis,” Henderson told The Appeal. “The CDC has come out and said that if people want to shelter in place with a tent, they should be allowed to do so. It’s a public-health risk to be breaking down people’s tents. But that’s exactly what people are experiencing on the street.”

Henderson, working with the activist group Dream Defenders, set up a clinic at the St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church in the impoverished Overtown neighborhood where he conducts mobile COVID-19 testing while offering homeless people showers and other services. Henderson said he opened the clinic because the Homeless Trust wasn’t providing sufficient services. (In 2017, the trust was criticized for working with Miami-Dade County police to arrest homeless people as a form of “shelter” before Hurricane Irma hit.)

“There’s just no one here advocating on behalf of poor people,” Henderson said. “The Homeless Trust should be that voice.”

But despite promises from local prosecutors and police that they would refrain from prosecuting or arresting people on low-level cases during the pandemic, some homeless people have still been convicted on charges that have little effect on public safety.  At an April 11 arraignment, a homeless shelter resident arrested for violating the city’s COVID-19 curfew entered a guilty plea. He was offered time served—but now has a fresh conviction on his record.