Miami Beach Facing Challenges Addressing its Homeless Population During COVID-19 Crisis

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Facing Challenges Addressing its Homeless Population During COVID-19 Crisis:

Balancing public safety with the right to refuse shelter

The Chairs of two Miami Beach Citizen Committees are asking Mayor Dan Gelber for a discussion to address services available for the homeless population in Miami Beach during the COVID-19 crisis. In a joint letter, Valerie Navarrete, Chair of the Committee on the Homeless and Alex Fernandez, Chair of the Police/Citizens Relations Committee, expressed concerns regarding “unsanitary conditions” on public right of ways and “questionable medical conditions” among “unsheltered homeless individuals who are among the most vulnerable to the infection.” 

While expressing support for the City’s measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, they note, “[T]hese emergency measures have resulted in other unintended circumstances related to homelessness that require urgent attention to prevent and contain transmission of any possible COVID-19 cases should they start to appear within this population.”

“The necessary closures of public facilities have led to unsanitary conditions on public rights of ways resulting from basic life-sustaining acts and bodily functions of homeless individuals,” they wrote. “Likewise, the vast emptiness of our commercial corridors have also pushed this displaced population into surrounding residential areas of Miami Beach that have traditionally not experienced homelessness as they seek food and other essentials.”

One area of concern documented on social media is the increased visibility of the homeless population on Lincoln Road. An “uptick in criminal activity” as well as photos of people bathing in the street’s water features, resulted in the City closing Lincoln Road from Washington Avenue to Alton Road between the hours of 9 pm and 5 am, fencing in the fountains (photo above), and requiring restaurants with takeout and delivery to close their Lincoln Road-facing access points and use side and rear points instead. 

Navarrete and Fernandez said they are hearing “growing concerns from residents and businesses… The public is rightfully fearful for their own personal health and safety by exposure to these conditions. We share the valid concerns of the public and equally fear for essential employees – including police officers and fire fighters – as they are dispatched to interact with homeless individuals.”

Navarrete and Fernandez have suggested, among other things, a temporary location to house unsheltered individuals, COVID-19 testing for the homeless, temporary restroom and shower facilities, the provision of food on a temporary basis during the crisis, and the restoration of full services from the Homeless Outreach Team which they say has been reduced during the crisis from 10 staff members to 4. [Updated: Fernandez said Ruiz indicated her staff is now back at full staff.]

“By facilitating a temporary approach as outlined [in the letter], we better safeguard the health of our community and employees, and provide for a more humanitarian approach to addressing those who are unhoused in our city,” Fernandez and Navarrete wrote.

Maria Ruiz, Director of the City’s Office of Housing and Community Services, said in an email that the City continues to offer shelter to homeless individuals but cannot force anyone to accept the help. “The City has conducted ongoing outreach to the homeless throughout the pandemic through both the City’s Homeless Outreach Team and the Police Department resulting in 52 shelter placements and 23 relocations. Please further note that 4 of the 7 people requesting shelter last Friday subsequently walked away and returned to the streets.” Navarrete says she and Fernandez were told by the City that they estimate there are 120 homeless remaining on the streets in Miami Beach.

“Despite the 52 placements made since the pandemic’s start, the majority of the City’s homeless have declined services and are free to do so as all shelter services are voluntary,” she said. “In fact, many of those placed in shelter subsequently walked away because they did not want to shelter in place despite being advised that this was the safest option for all members of our community. Let us stress that their decision to remain homeless is theirs to make, but their decision to violate an Emergency Order places the entire community at risk.”

Ruiz noted the City has tried to educate the homeless community “to better inform their decision to remain on the streets including: COVID-19 prevention information, Economic Impact Payment information so that they can access needed financial resources, the location of portable restrooms and washing stations so that they can proactively ensure an appropriate response to their physical needs, and even the provision of face masks made by the Homeless Outreach Team so that they can comply with the City’s Emergency Order.”

With regard to testing, she indicated, “The City has proactively done medical screenings to all homeless persons accepting services whether it be relocation or shelter placement. Please note that the Outreach Team are not medical professionals and are limited as to what they can do. As to the broader role the City can have, our Fire Department has responded expeditiously to all calls for service and has even created a dedicated COVID-19 response team.” 

“The City’s emergency order to close beaches, public bathrooms and non-essential businesses was necessary to ensure the safety of the community as we seek to get the upper hand against the coronavirus,” Ruiz said. “The City placed bathrooms and washing stations for its homeless residents as soon as the vendors were able to deliver. The location of these services were provided in writing to all homeless in advance of the stations being installed. This information continues to be provided as part of our outreach efforts. Again, please note that the homeless also received prevention information, including handwashing instructions along with masks.”

Addressing concerns about “crimes of desperation,” Ruiz said, “While our Police Department has done an outstanding job protecting our community and its residents during this challenging time, neither the police nor anyone else can predict when a person will commit a crime. More so, these supposed acts of desperation, i.e. trespass, defecating in public, criminal mischief etc., take hold because these individuals have voluntarily opted to refuse the City’s help. In other words, if our homeless accepted shelter, they would not be in a position to commit these crimes. We cannot hold our Police or anyone else responsible for the decisions of others. Again, let us reiterate that we must honor the law even in this time of pandemic.”

“Our City is committed to serving all its residents during these difficult times. But we must also expect all our residents to adhere to Emergency Orders for the wellbeing of themselves and us all.”

Asked about the request to add a discussion item on the homeless concerns to Wednesday’s City Commission agenda, Mayor Gelber’s Chief of Staff Michele Burger said she expected City Manager Jimmy Morales would address the issue during the meeting.

Photo courtesy: Jhon Cornejo

 
Further information on this week's virtual City Commission Meeting
(Commission Chambers closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic)
Wednesday, April 22, 8:30 am

Televised on MBTV on Atlantic Broadband Channel 660 or AT&T U-verse Channel 99
Also streamed live on Facebook and the City’s website.

To provide spoken comment:
Dial-in: 312-626-6799 or 1-888-475-4499 (Toll Free)
Meeting ID: 235797272#
Press *9 to raise your hand to be placed in queue to speak.
Full agenda here

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