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'I was absolutely shocked': Virginia Key homeless encampment approval causes uproar

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An aerial view of the wastewater treatment plant on Virginia Key.

Miami city commissioners initially shot down a proposal to move many unhoused people to an encampment on Virginia Key. But Esther Alonso, founder of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, knew that this wasn’t the end. And she was right.

Hours later, on Thursday, the motion to pilot the “transition zone” on Virginia Key passed in a 3-2 vote. The decision has created an uproar among many Miami residents who opposed the Virginia Key location.

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The encampment, which was first proposed by Commissioner Joe Carollo last October, will provide 50-100 tiny homes for people experiencing homelessness. The site is designed to be temporary and voluntary and will offer necessary social and health services to unhoused people, according to Miami’s Director of Health Services William Porro.

Porro showed the commissioners three potential spots for the encampment. The presentation identified Virginia Key as the “optimal location” because of its seclusion from residential buildings.

But Alonso believes the location is far from ideal.

“I'm horribly disappointed,” Alonso said. “We didn't hear a conversation about this being a park, a waterfront park. This is where people in town go to vacation when they can't afford to vacation anywhere else.”

The Virginia Key Outdoor Center, beaches, and the bike trails which surround the proposed land attract hundreds of locals and tourists every week, she added.

The center is home to several popular summer camp programs and facilities used by Miami residents, according to operations manager Bradley Luft. But since last Friday, Luft says it has been flooded with messages from concerned parents about the prospect of a so-called “transition zone” going up nearby.

“It would be devastating. We don’t believe that we would be able to continue operating there,” Luft said. “But that’s really got the least to do with it. The most important thing is making sure this is good for the homeless. The second thing is making sure this is open to the public.”

Luft describes the plan as a no-win situation. Virginia Key is at least six miles away from other homeless shelters downtown and is roughly a two-hour walk with few public transit options running along Rickenbacker Causeway, according to Luft.

“It's also a critical area for ecological preservation and restoration,” Luft said. “Just northeast of where that location is, we've got a beach there that Frost Science Museum has worked tirelessly to be able to restore.”

The island is vulnerable to hurricanes and extreme weather, which could require the city to potentially evacuate residents to other shelters, Luft added.

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, told the Miami Herald that their agency does not support the plan, saying encampment goes against the “housing first” approach backed by the agency.

Other groups, including Miami Bike Scene and Virginia Key Bicycle Club, have joined the opposition to the transition zone location. An online petition calling on Mayor Francis Suarez to veto the plan for the encampment has gained traction, surpassing 10,000 signatures.

“I was absolutely shocked,” said Erica McKinney, a North Miami resident and long-time Virginia Key beach-goer. “I understand what is happening regarding our homeless individuals who live in this community, but this is not the place for them. It really isn't.”

McKinney pointed to the lack of surrounding services as a key issue, saying that building tiny homes will not help unhoused people in need of mental health services.

“It’s a complete disrespect, to me. Really because, they look at this place as a dumping ground,” McKinney added.

Virginia Key, which celebrated 77 years on Monday, historically served as one of Miami’s “colored only” beaches. The area is recognized today as a landmark place of Black history and culture, according to Virginia Key Beach Park Trust Executive Director Guy Forchion.

“Miami was always a vacation spot. And so African-Americans from all over the country during segregation came down here,” Forchion said. “That the city would see [the park] as some isolated, unused place, it’s just not true.”

City commissioners are expected to review an economic analysis report of the Virginia Key location and other locations in September.

“It would be a horrible loss for this community to lose this park,” Alonso said.

Ali Bianco is a junior at Northwestern University studying journalism and international studies.