Federico Moreno
Federico Moreno (am holt)

On Flagler Street in downtown Miami, a disheveled mentally ill man was having a long conversation with a cardboard cutout of a bodybuilder in the display window of a nutritional supplement store.

Passersby didn’t bat an eye, the scene is so commonplace.

Less than a quarter-mile away in the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Federal Courthouse, the chief judge was weighing the fate of chronically homeless people in the city.

“There are very few cases where the whole focus is how do we help people,” Moreno said.

The city became a national model for protecting homeless people in 1997 with the agreement reached after a decade of class action litigation and two trials. Homeless people were protected from prosecution on minor charges for living on the street.

At the time, the homeless population in Miami had swelled following Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Since then, city officials say the homeless population has been cut drastically.

Problems remain with the chronically homeless, many of them who do not want shelter because it would require them to submit to various programs.

Police power

The modification hammered out between the city and civil rights advocates gives police more powers of arrest. People sleeping outside cannot block sidewalks, build temporary structures in parks or litter within 300 feet oftrash cans. Also, homeless people who are registered sex offenders are no longer protected under Pottinger.

People could be arrested if a bed is available at a shelter and it’s refused. Under the modification, 3-inch-thick mats will now be considered a viable alternative to a bed in shelters.

The city sought modifications following the construction of more than 22,000 condominium units, numerous hotels and the opening of more than 200 downtown restaurants and retail shops .

Moreno heard from concerned citizens, including long-time homeless advocate and pioneering feminist Roxcy Bolton, as well as Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez.

“If we can save one life because of the settlement, it will be worth it,” Regalado said.

Not everybody was thrilled with the settlement.

John R. Kowal, who said he worked with homeless people, said he was concerned that mentally ill people are not being considered adequately under the modification.

Mathew D. Marr, an assistant sociology professor at Florida International University, said adding police powers will do nothing to alleviate chronic homelessness. “The police-first approach goes against the housing-first approach,” he said.

Referring to Marr’s testimony, Bob Dickinson, chairman of the Camillus House shelter, said, “He may have the research, but I have the boots on the ground, and it’s not one size fits all.”

Property Issues

In December, Moreno had expressed concern about modifying provisions for public toilet facilities, saying homeless people will again be using sidewalks and alleys in the business district.

On Friday, Moreno’s chief concern was for the property of homeless people forced under threat of arrest into shelters.

Attorney Tom Scott, a former U.S. attorney now a partner at Cole, Scott & Kissane, represented the city. He assured Moreno that little has changed on property issues and called the modification “a step forward.”

Bolton, who lost her voice to a stroke, told Moreno through her daugher that she is concerned homeless women, about 25 percent of the homeless population, are not being protected enough under the modification.

Bolton’s Wikipedia entry has a photo of her with Eleanor Roosevelt. The 88-year-old is a trailblazing feminist who helped form the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women.

“Roxcy Bolton is an institution,” former Miami Mayor Maurice A. Ferre told the court.

Moreno said he hoped the modification would get the desired results but said, “If I were a gambling man, I have a feeling maybe in the future I will see you all again.”