The city of Miami, with its campaign against the Tuttle bridge dwellers, may be wading into a treacherous legal swamp. Valerie Jonas, who worked in the 1996 lawsuit that exposed the willy-nilly round-up of the homeless off the city streets, suggests that the ACLU may be heading back into federal court. Val writes:
The recent threat by the City to arrest or disperse the people under the Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge violates the letter and spirit of the binding agreement in Pottinger v. City of Miami.
In that case, there were thousands of homeless people, but few shelter beds in the City of Miami. When merchants or politicians complained about the visible presence of the homeless, the City police would arrest them under various laws for conduct that was inseparably connected with living outside -- being in the park after hours, trespassing, obstructing the sidewalk, etc.
Under the Pottinger agreement, the City could no longer arrest any homeless person, under any ordinance or statute, for conduct that was connected with living outside, unless the City first offered, and the homeless person rejected a shelter bed.
The causeway encampment is the inevitable result of overlapping 2,500-foot residency restrictions that have rendered virtually all affordable housing in the county off-limits to sex offenders. Nearly every person in the encampment would be sheltered with a loved one, but for the impact of these restrictions. The City is now seeking to disperse the causeway encampment, on the basis that some landfill with a picnic table is fewer than 2,500 aquatic feet away. Yet the City has not first offered shelter, because sex offenders are not allowed in shelter beds. Under Pottinger, the City may not arrest the people under the causeway just for living there, regardless of the proximity of its "park."
The ACLU is not arguing for a permanent homeless encampment under the causeway, but merely for the right to be left outside in peace until appropriate shelter is available.
The problem of homeless sex offenders is not unique to this city or county. Residency restrictions have crisscrossed the state, driving more and more people out of shelter and into the streets. These laws have not made anyone safer; to the contrary. A growing body of scientific research proves that residency restrictions have no impact on whether sex offenders re-offend. At the same time, homelessness has been demonstrated to be the number one predictor of recidivism for all offenders. In driving sex offenders from available shelter to a life in the streets, the residency restrictions have worsened the very problem they were meant to solve.
Although the Julia Tuttle Causeway encampment may be the most visible manifestation of this problem, there will be more and bigger such encampments state-wide, as more schools and bus stops crop up, more sex offenders are released from prison, and more political subdivisions pass residency restrictions.
As the ACLU has urged Governor Crist over the past two years, it is time for the State to address this growing public health and safety crisis in a reasonable, evidence-based and State-wide manner.