Encampment Ban Is Miami’s Latest Effort to Criminalize Homelessness

MAGGIE MARQUART—Birth certificates, urns, medication, family photos—these are all items the City of Miami has confiscated from people experiencing homelessness in recent street “clean ups.” Now, the city also has the authority to arrest people for living on the streets. In October, Miami passed an ordinance banning encampments, taking another step toward criminalizing homelessness.

Ordinance 14032, passed by the City Commission on a four to one vote, bans homeless encampments in public places. Encampments are defined as the use of any fabric, cardboard or other material used for living accommodation purposes, and as any accumulation of property occupying more than 3 cubic feet of space. The ordinance allows police officers to arrest people experiencing homelessness if they are unable to move their encampment within two hours and refuse a shelter bed.

This new legislation comes almost three years after the Pottinger Agreement, which protected people experiencing homelessness from arrest for engaging in “life-sustaining activities” in public, was terminated. U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno dissolved the decree, releasing the city from its responsibilities, due to the decreasing homeless population in Miami. However, housing advocates argue that this recent ordinance will push the city back to its pre-Pottinger days of high arrests and harsh treatment of people experiencing homelessness.  

Arrests for violating this ordinance may not decrease the homeless population the way some City Commissioners hope, as laws that criminalize homelessness have not been shown to reduce visible homelessness in cities. Because people experiencing homelessness are not living in encampments and on the street by choice, punishing them for doing so has little to no constructive or deterrent value. Instead, arrests create a cycle of people being moved from the streets to jail, and then back onto the streets. Time in jail does not create permanent housing, and upon release, these individuals often set up encampments again. The clearing of encampments and street clean-ups do little to solve the issue of people living on the streets, but instead creates a pattern of people moving their belongings to other areas of the city that will then also be cleared. Additionally, arrests further entrench people in homelessness as criminal convictions are costly to resolve, can prevent individuals from obtaining employment, and can bar people from accessing subsidized housing.

Before an arrest can take place however, the new ordinance requires officers to offer people a shelter bed if one is available. But offering shelter beds should not be used to justify this ordinance, as shelters may be full, overly restrictive, physically inaccessible, or otherwise inadequate. Shelters are temporary and have limits on the amount of time that can be spent there as well. Some people experiencing homelessness also say that shelters can be worse than living on the streets, and feel unsafe staying there. City Commissioner Joe Carollo, who sponsored this ordinance, believes people choose to be homeless and prefer living on the streets. However, the truth is that people do not turn down safe, permanent, and supportive housing, but they may turn down shelters that expose them to violence or drugs. Additionally, this ordinance was passed after guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that homeless encampments should not be cleared during Covid-19 unless individual housing units, not congregate shelters, are available. Dismantling encampments harms public health and may lead to an increased spread of Covid-19 and makes it more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to access health services.

Not only will the ordinance be ineffective in reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness in Miami, it will also be costly. The National Homelessness Law Center estimates that chronic homelessness, including the costs of arresting and incarcerating people experiencing homelessness, costs taxpayers $83,000 per person every year. Prior to the passage of this ordinance, the City of Miami had budgeted almost $1 million for supplies, including cranes and dump trucks, to complete street “clean-ups.” It costs cities far less over the long run to place individuals in permanent supportive housing, rather than using public funds to cycle individuals through jail or conduct street sweeps. For example, a 2014 study in Central Florida found that spending money on permanent housing and housing assistance instead of on law enforcement and medical costs for people experiencing homelessness, could save the area more than $140 million over ten years.

Mayor of Miami Francis Suarez, who supported the termination of the Pottinger agreement, recently announced a $3 million allocation of federal Covid relief funds to local agencies that provide services for people experiencing homelessness. However, this effort to reach a “functional zero” homeless population in Miami comes in stark contrast to the recent legislation banning encampments. If Miami truly wants to reduce its homeless population, arrests are not the answer. The City should instead direct funds toward increasing access to affordable and permanent housing. Miami could implement a “Housing First” approach that prioritizes placing people in individual housing and connecting them to support services to maintain housing stability. Permanent supportive housing keeps people off the streets in the long term and reduces the amount of money cities spend keeping people experiencing homelessness in the criminal justice system. Commissioner Ken Russell, who gave the only “no” vote on the ordinance, has suggested using the federal money to build 500 affordable housing units in the city.

Miami is not unique in its approach to “solving” homelessness, as almost every state in the U.S. has at least one law that criminalizes homelessness. However, if Miami really wants to reach its goal of “functional zero,” it must implement a Housing First approach, rather than criminalization, as arrests do not solve homelessness, but housing does.