Homeless people could face jail under proposed changes to law

Activists say unavoidable parts of street life will be criminalised

But city chief says homelessness has become a serious problem

For years an uneasy truce has existed between people living rough on the streets of Miami and police officers.

Before the late 1990s, Miami police frequently arrested homeless people for sleeping on park benches, eating on paths, or congregating in public places - but after a landmark court case in 1998, officers were instructed not to make arrests for these minor offences and instead take them to a homeless shelter.

But now a Miami commissioner is petitioning the courts to renege on much of the settlement, Pottinger vs City of Miami, so many 'life-sustaining' aspects of street life are once again crimes.

Miami city commissioner Marc Sarnoff wants changes to empower police to arrest homeless people for certain offences


Jailing the poor: Homeless people in Miami could be arrested for living rough under new proposals. File picture
Marc Sarnoff wants police to be given the power to arrest anyone who blocks a sidewalk, cooks a meal in a public area using a fire, litters, urinates or defecates in public, or engages in lewd conduct.

He also wants to give police authority to arrest people who refuse to go to a shelter on three occasions and to confiscate their belongings.

Sarnoff argues that homeless people in the downtown business district are a 'chronic problem', reports Florida Watchdog


Benjamin Waxman, a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU, claims authorities want to protect the city's image. File picture
'We have exactly 351 homeless people, which represents 40 percent of the total homeless in the county,' he said.

But many saw Pottinger vs City of Miami as a huge success and pointed out that the homeless population of Miami dropped from 6,000 then to around 350 today.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the organistion that fought the original case, will oppose Sarnoff's plans.

Benjamin Waxman, a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU, said: 'We are here to explain to people what the Pottinger lawsuit is about and why this settlement is important for protecting the underprivileged.

'I think what bothers them (the city) is their presence, because they are trying to project the image of Miami as a centre of international travel and business, and they see the homeless as interfering with their intentions.'


Ronald Poppo, a homeless Miami man, almost died after he was attacked by Rudy Eugene
But Sarnoff defended his actions, claiming he wants to get more people off the streets and into shelters.

In an article for the Miami Herald, he wrote: 'We've come a long way in 15 years to simultaneously improve the plight of the homeless and revitalise downtown. It's time to take the next steps to enhance the existing solutions for both the homeless and the all the people of Miami.

'In addition to providing additional beds, the Pottinger Settlement Agreement must be amended to provide better solutions to the chronic homeless and safeguards for others from having to deal with faeces and urine on their thresholds and sidewalks, lewd misconduct and fires.'

The issue of homelessness in Miami hit the headlines last year when Rudy Eugene, 31, chewed lumps of flesh from the face of homeless man Ronald Poppo in a harrowing attack which shocked America.

Mr Poppo - who had been homeless for more than three decades, had his nose, mouth and eyes torn off.

The 66-year-old has been left blind but his doctors say he has been working with an occupational therapist to learn how to take care of himself.