Miami Officials Break Up Homeless Encampment, Drawing A Rebuke From County

May 13, 2020

City of Miami workers cleared out a homeless encampment under a bridge in Overtown on Wednesday morning, a move that drew a rare sharp rebuke from the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust.

The Homeless Trust, an agency of Miami-Dade County, says that it only learned of the action through video that was posted on Twitter by the Dream Defenders, a Miami-based activist group.

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“We knew nothing about it, and we would not have been a part of it even if we did,” Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book told WLRN. “The CDC has clear guidelines on this because of the pandemic, and those guidelines are — you don’t break up encampments.”

The Centers for Disease Control guidelines explain that breaking up homeless encampments can be detrimental to public safety.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” reads interim guidelines. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Book took part in a city of Miami commission meeting last week, where much of the discussion revolved around the homeless population during the pandemic. So far, eighteen homeless Miami residents have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 535 total tests conducted by the Homeless Trust, Book shared during the meeting.

At no point in the meeting did city officials discuss clearing out homeless encampments.

Book stressed that the Homeless Trust is a partner with the city of Miami, where most of the homeless population in Miami-Dade County lives.

“I’m always gonna be reticent to criticize our partners,” said Book. “But we just wouldn’t have done it, and they know how we feel about it.”

The city of Miami has not yet responded to a request for comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida condemned the city’s action.

“People experiencing homelessness are already facing daunting challenges to maintain social distancing, find some shelter and to make sure they have access to sanitation. Attacking this especially vulnerable community during this pandemic is simply inhumane,” said ACLU attorney Jacqueline Azis. “Our cities should be finding ways to assist our homeless population them, not treat them as if they were criminals.”

The action took place on property owned by the Florida Department of Transportation. The city of Miami asked a contractor for the Department to be present on the scene while city workers removed “trash” from the area, Tish Burgher, a spokesperson for the transportation department, wrote WLRN in an email.

Just yesterday, the contractor placed “No Trespassing” signs at the site at the city's request in order to “ help with enforcement,” Burgher added.

Under state law, it is illegal to camp under highways and byways. But in order to enforce that law, “No Trespassing” signs need to be posted.

“If the state didn’t do what they did, the city couldn’t have done what they did this morning,” said Book.