Take a walk downtown: Miami leaders make homelessness a crime, but won’t enact real solutions | Editorial

·4 min read

Homelessness in Miami-Dade hit a 25-year low this year, according to a latest count. But ask residents and businesses of downtown Miami — or go for a walk along some of its eerie streets on a weekend — and the picture looks different.

There’s no avoiding the issue. No matter how much progress we have made — or how much empathy one has for people who live in the streets — homeless encampments threaten what local leaders hope is the renaissance of the city’s urban core. If people don’t feel safe going or living there, businesses won’t thrive. And shuttered store fronts will become more attractive to those seeking shelter.

It’s a chicken-or-egg problem — one to which the Miami City Commission took a sledge-hammer approach when it voted 4-1, last month to criminalize homelessness. A new ordinance bans encampments and gives people living on the streets the option of accepting shelter or going to jail.

Denying basic dignity

We suppose that’s a slightly better idea than the one Commissioner Joe Carollo floated of creating a temporary tent city on Virginia Key. Nevertheless, it’s still Band-Aid solution that could create a street-to-jail-back-to-street pipeline and burden taxpayers who pay to house inmates. Not to mention it denies homeless people basic dignity.

But perhaps there will be one unintended benefit of the ordinance: It has shed light on the issue and maybe will expose what’s wrong with how the city currently addresses homelessness. The images of police arresting people and throwing away their belongings likely will spur entities that deal with the cause, mainly the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, to step up their game.

“The ordinance is going to shed light on the underbelly,” Stephen Dutton, homeless advocate and president of Avenue 3 Miami, an organization that aims to transform Miami’s urban core, told the Miami Herald Editorial Board.

“The bottom line is, there are not a lot of shelter beds,” he added, saying much of the backlog comes from families staying in shelters for years while they await permanent housing.

Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents downtown, said the issue is the lack of housing. He told the Editorial Board that the city can address the problem by building 500 affordable units on public land using bond money that voters approved in 2018 and federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

Ask Carollo, and the problem is that the homeless simply prefer the streets, where they take away residents’ right to enjoy public spaces. But that theory offers nothing to address the problem. Many street dwellers have told the Herald that they don’t feel safe at shelters.

Redefining downtown Miami

Whatever the root of the problem might be, downtown Miami is waiting for a solution.

Dutton is a Biscayne Boulevard resident who saw his husband pushed to the ground by a homeless man, and later die, in 2016. Despite that, he believes “the potential is there” for downtown to become the next Wynwood, Design District or Midtown.

The downtown of today is a far cry from 20 or even 10 years ago, when the streets were mostly empty at night. Luxury high-rises, a state-of-the-art Brightline train station, trendy restaurants, the site of a Van Gogh immersive exhibit and a Whole Foods — the hallmark of any bougie neighborhood — now form a counterpoint to some of the seedier blocks.

Homelessness was a serious issue in downtown Miami even before the pandemic, but we can’t blame the issues facing the area, once the epicenter of life in Miami, solely on that. Delays in the Flagler Street revitalization project, which finally started in May, probably didn’t help; neither did Miami-Dade’s western suburban growth. Now that living and enjoying ”life in the city” is the trend again, downtown Miami needs to find its identity.

The $27 million makeover of Flagler Street promises to bring a struggling business district back to life with a pedestrian-friendly design and a sleek, curbless street covered in concrete pavers. The project, under construction now, will stretch from Biscayne Boulevard to the Miami-Dade County Courthouse.

“When that’s done, you’ll see stores fill up,” Russell told the Editorial Board.

Changes on the way

The $818 million reconstruction of Interstate 395, the piece of highway connecting the Dolphin Expressway to the MacArthur Causeway, also promises to be transformative. Its redesign, scheduled for completion in 2024, will convert the shadowy, oppressive area under the overpass with “The Underdeck,” a more than 30-acre expanse of parks, trails and public spaces, complementing the Underline south of the Miami River and linked by a mile-long pathway between Biscayne Bay and Overtown.

Russell said the best government can do to fill empty storefronts is provide good infrastructure. The city and the state, which is overseeing the I-395 revamping, are making progress on that end.

But when it comes to homelessness, the Miami City Commission is proving to be incapable of effectively dealing with an existential problem in downtown Miami.

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