On Friday, police officers and social workers poured through the nearly-deserted streets of Miami, searching out the city’s homeless as Hurricane Irma continued her devastating path through the Caribbean. According to estimates, there are roughly 1,100 homeless people living in Miami, and with the city in the crosshairs of potentially record-setting destruction, authorities are doing everything within their power to get them safely off the streets.
In order to accomplish this monumental task, Miami officers (accompanied by a psychiatrist and a news team) sought out those who still remain without shelter in the city. In order to be “rescued,” Miami’s homeless are being given a choice – come along willingly to a storm shelter or be involuntarily held for a mental health evaluation. According to Miami-Dade Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book, police have the authority to take this action under the “Baker Act.”
“We’re going out and every single homeless person who is unwilling to come off the street, we are likely going to involuntarily Baker Act them.”
As CBS News reported, the Baker Act is a law that permits law enforcement and/or other authorities to involuntarily commit patients if they present a danger to themselves or others. The law will allow Miami police to detain and hold those homeless unwilling to evacuate the path of Hurricane Irma for up to 72 hours without charging them with a crime or taking them to court to seek an extension of the 72 hour hold.
Miami police claim that invoking the Baker Act to detain homeless citizens against their will is not a step that is taken lightly. However, the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma (now downgraded to a Category 3 storm but expected to strengthen) has forced them to take desperate measures to save lives.
By late Friday afternoon, six homeless Miami citizens had been detained by police and involuntarily committed to ride out the duration of the storm in a safe location. According to chairman Book, the approach of arresting members of the homeless population who refused to heed an evacuation order is something that was never done before. Even so, vowed to prevent situations like those that played out in Texas when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston last month.
“No one’s ever tried this before. But I’m not going to be the mayor of Houston. I’m not going to tell people to take a Sharpie and write their names on their arm. I am not going to sign suicide notes for people who are homeless in my community. I am just not going to do it. That’s why you have a Baker Act. It’s there to protect those who can’t otherwise protect themselves.”
In addition to the six homeless Miami residents taken into involuntary custody on Friday, another 70 or so willingly allowed themselves to be transported to local shelters to ride out wrath of Irma. It is estimated that roughly 600 more homeless people were unable to be found during Friday’s Baker Act roundup, meaning that they will likely have to ride out the full fury of Hurricane Irma as she barrels across Florida, outside and exposed to the deadly weather.
Currently, the over 660,000 people in the Miami area are under a mandatory evacuation order, with Irma expected to make landfall early Sunday morning. The most recent storm-tracking models are estimating that Miami and its vulnerable homeless holdouts may escape a direct hit as Hurricane Irma has tracked further west that predicted and is now threatening Tampa.
[Featured Image by Josh Replogle/AP Images]