Miami, FL – A new Dade County law restricting camping on public property may conflict with a federal ruling from 1988, originally put in place to protect the local homeless. The recent ordinance was initially proposed after a wave of 2011 Occupy Wall Street protestors copped a squat and congested public places, living in tented communities, and leaving behind trash. The county spent between $10,000 and $17,000 cleaning up the mess left over by the crowd, after they were finally evicted from the grounds.
When the county commissioners unanimously voted to pass the new camping restriction, they intended it be used to reinforce an officers’ ability to remove those who violated the measure in noncompliant or disruptive demonstrations. The new law defines impermissible camping as the ‘setting up of tents, shacks, or shelters for sleeping activities or making preparations to sleep, from the hours of sunset to sunrise.’
Miami First Amendment lawyer Tom Julin said he’s troubled by that wording:
“They’re not allowing the general public to do the same type things that they, or organizations they approve of, do in a park.”
There are those who debate the potential, the new ordinance creates, of harassment and abuse of the homeless at the hands of officers. Attorney Dan Palugyai, board member of the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) assured:
“We’re prepared to litigate should there be issues in the future. Our past experiences tell us it’s likely, even probable.”
A 1988 federal court decision in Michael Pottinger, Peter Carter, and Berry Young (representing the populous of Miami homeless) vs. The City of Miami, found that the homeless people in Miami could not be harassed or punished for occupying public property, because doing so would violate their fundamental right to travel, and to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
A class of homeless plaintiffs argued Miami’s policy of arresting displaced people for sleeping, eating, and congregating in public. They also challenged having their belongings confiscated and destroyed. At trial, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida found that some 6,000 people (the plaintiffs) in Miami were homeless involuntarily, due to the limited availability of shelter space. They found that the criminalization of essential acts performed in public, when there was no alternative, violated the plaintiffs’ rights to travel and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The court ordered the city to establish ‘safe zones’ throughout Miami where homeless people could pursue harmless daily activities without fear of arrest.
The Miami Herald points out that the new ordinance does specifically provide for the homeless somewhat. If police direct a homeless person occupying a county facility to leave, the officer is first obligated to look for sleeping space for the homeless person at a county shelter. If there is none, or if the person refuses the option, he or she can be arrested for trespassing if they remain or return to the space. Threat of arrest is meant to be used as a last resort.
The new camping ordinance may open a slippery slope of questionable situations that contrast the coverage of Pottinger vs. The City of Miami provides. In turn the Pottinger vs. The City of Miami laws contradicts those of the new regulation in upholding equal rights. How is it acceptable for the homeless to reside in ‘safe zones’ but non-violent protestors are not given the same legal permissions?
The Miami Times notes the number of homelessness rising and quotes Ronald L. Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, as he explains:
“There’s a difference between ‘situational’ and ‘chronic’ homelessness, but the majority of families and individuals are in need because of the economy. They’ve lost their jobs or have been downgraded in their work status. We have increased our efforts at reaching the chronically homeless, that is a person that has been homeless for 365 days or more in a calendar year. They often face other problems including mental health and substance or alcohol abuse. Some people turn their noses up at the homeless but we say it could happen to any of us. We must find ways to solve the problem. It’s certainly less expensive to help someone find housing and pay their utilities than to foot the bill for someone who goes to the emergency room over a dozen times in a year.”