An island for the homeless? Miami approves new encampment.

Miami city commissioners considered five locations, but chose Virginia Key to build “tiny homes” for 50 to 100 people.
Miami is considering a plan to move homeless people to a piece of land north of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer wastewater treatment plant on Virginia Key.
Miami is considering a plan to move homeless people to a piece of land north of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer wastewater treatment plant on Virginia Key. [ Miami Herald ]
Published July 28, 2022|Updated July 29, 2022

Miami plans to take people experiencing homelessness off the streets and move them to a city-sponsored encampment on the barrier island of Virginia Key, an idea that has sparked opposition from some community advocates and could imperil federal funding for countywide homeless initiatives.

Miami city commissioners Thursday night approved a plan to set up “tiny homes” for 50 to 100 people on the island. The idea for a “transition zone” was first suggested by Commissioner Joe Carollo in 2021 and was pitched Thursday as a way to connect people who are homeless with social services. But outdoor enthusiasts and cyclists who bike, hike and paddle in the area oppose the idea, which was also criticized by the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

The city will now plan to buy small dwellings and place them on Virginia Key, near several outdoor recreational areas. The concept resembles projects across the U.S., including Pinellas County, in some cases with the help of nonprofit or religious groups. Other cities have not placed camps on islands.

William Porro, the city’s director of human services, presented the concept to commissioners as a humane way to help “chronically homeless” people, or people who live on the street and refuse to go to a shelter. He described a facility where an outside management firm would provide security and enforce a zero tolerance policy on drug use, alcohol and violence. The “transition zone” would be a voluntary program.

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, told the Miami Herald the agency will not support any such encampment because it does not adhere with federal guidelines tied to programs that are meant to encourage a “housing-first” philosophy to address homelessness — an approach backed by the publicly funded county agency.

“The Trust cannot support or fund any homeless encampment without jeopardizing our programs and funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Book said. “They gives us $41 million a year.”

Esther Alonso, owner and operator of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, said the opposition against the project is not about not-in-my-backyard elitists.

“This is about land like no other natural area in Miami,” she said. “Nobody wants a homeless encampment in their backyard, so we’ll put it in everybody’s backyard, in a gem of a public park. It would not be a good co-existence situation. You can’t have a bunch of homeless men around teenage girls in bikinis.”

Commissioners have for years debated how to address homelessness in Miami, an often controversial topic that has led to government intervention in the past. A class-action lawsuit over police harassment of the homeless led to a federal consent decree that protected certain rights for people on the street. In recent years, following the 2019 dissolution of that decree, the city has taken steps to make it harder for people to live in public spaces, outside of a shelter.

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The latest idea would have the city move homeless people away from densely populated areas such as downtown, Overtown and Little Havana. The commission asked city staff to develop a concept for a space where homeless people could be temporarily housed. The top choice recommended by City Manager Art Noriega’s staff was a northeastern swath of Virginia Key, on a stretch of land near the Virginia Key Outdoor Center and biking trails.

Sunny McLean, a co-founder of the Virginia Key Alliance advocacy group, said the encampment proposal conflicts with the Virginia Key Master Plan approved by the city.

“We are stunned that anyone is even proposing this location,” McLean said before Thursday’s vote. “It’s a popular outdoor recreation area for Miamians, families and tourists right next to a restored and environmentally protected lagoon and beach. Why would you put an encampment for homeless people in a remote area? It’s ill-conceived and inconsiderate of the work and millions of dollars invested in that place.”

Cycling group Miami Bike Scene argued that the location is far from ideal because of its proximity to the county sewage treatment plant, its distance from social service buildings and the amount of mosquitoes in the area.

“Also, this is not a ‘secluded location.’ The proposed location is the parking lot to the heavily trafficked Virginia Key North Point Trails,” states a post published this week on the group’s website. The group noted that there are nearby biking and walking trails that attract residents and tourists. Miami Bike Scene said it supports the Liberty City location because it is “closer to jobs, public transport, and services.”

Commissioner Joe Carollo suggested the Virginia Key concept in 2021 as part of a series of legislative proposals related to homelessness.

He drew controversy when he sponsored an ordinance that banned encampments on public property and empowered police officers to arrest homeless people if they refused to be moved to a shelter. That ordinance passed. He defended his stance, arguing that residents were complaining about homeless people blocking sidewalks, littering and leaving urine and feces in public spaces. Carollo then further sponsored a resolution to create an “adopt-a-homeless program” that would allow people he called “hypocrites” to take people in from off the street.

The plan presented Thursday included cost estimates for temporary shelter options that are similar to short-term housing used by social service groups in other cities, from repurposed shipping containers to small cottages. The city could also create a dormitory structure.

Over the last 15 years in Pinellas County, Catholic Charities has developed 10 acres that started as 250 tents and grew into a complex, called Pinellas Hope, that includes offices, efficiency apartments and a library for the homeless.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the city has allowed a nonprofit to manage a temporary encampment on a city-owned lot where dozens of people can sleep in tents. The Chattanooga project is modeled after a similar approach in Seattle.

The Miami plan comes weeks after the city was sued by advocacy groups over the treatment of people living on the street. Legal Services of Greater Miami, Southern Legal Counsel, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city of violating constitutional rights by destroying the personal property of people experiencing homelessness during regular cleanups of encampments.

By Joey Flechas, Linda Robertson and Alexander Lugo