Not in my backyard: the debate on homeless relocation in Miami (includes multimedia content)

A City Commission proposal for a temporary homeless camp in Virginia Key sparked mass controversy this week after Miami-Dade county leaders and citizens expressed a number of concerns, but the question of where the camp will be relocated remains unanswered.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and City Commissioner Joe Carollo suggested a pause on the plan for up to 6 months while they discuss alternative locations and improvements to the plan. The Miami City Commission will come to a vote in September to finalize the proposal.

The homeless crisis, however, continues to run rampant due to the lack of affordable housing, leading to a capacity issue for homeless shelters across the city.

Non-profit organizations such as Camillus House has assisted nearly 12,700 homeless individuals in Miami since its inception, but in recent years that number has almost plateaued.

“We have clients sitting here in our emergency housing programs longer than they would under other circumstances,” says Camillus House CEO Hilda Fernandez. “It’s very difficult for our clients to go out into the community and be able to secure safe housing that’s affordable for them, and that has clogged our system.”

The CEO says that Camillus House is experiencing vacancy rates of 1% and is currently trying to increase physical capacity to accommodate more requests for housing assistance. 

As a result of this growing problem, the Miami City Commission proposed a temporary housing plan known as the “Transformation & Transition Zone,” including five site options and four shelter ideas for a homeless encampment. 

The Virginia Key Beach Park is often considered a hidden gem in Miami as it’s known for its habitat restoration, bike trails, and family-friendly beaches. ( Taylor Gutierrez / SFMN)

Of the five locations proposed, a section of the Virginia Key Beach Park was considered optimal, mostly because of its seclusion and distance from residential neighborhoods. 

Virginia Key was also established as the first “colored beach” in the city during the segregation era and remains a popular recreation site for minority communities in Miami. The African-American community, specifically the NAACP Miami Chapter, deemed the plan inappropriate considering the historical significance of the proposed site. 

“Virginia Key was designated as the beach for black residents in the age of Jim Crow,” says NAACP local chapter President Dwight Bullard. “Now that segregation is over, the mistreatment of that space really shows an erasure of the historical significance it has for the black community.” 

Virginia Key sign, circa 1950s, along the Rickenbacker Causeway connecting the Miami mainland to Virginia Key. (Photo courtesy of University of Miami, Collaborative Archive From the African Diaspora)

Aside from historical concerns, Bullard also emphasizes that the Virginia Key proposal will completely isolate homeless people from the city.

“Homeless advocates like myself will always argue that you have to create a system that is humane and functional considering the demographic that you’re talking about,” says Bullard. “To remove homeless folks away from the basic necessities [access to healthcare, access to transportation, access to food] is irresponsible and dangerous for the very people you are claiming to be helping.”

The NAACP president suggests the “Transformation & Transition Zone” plan might be worth reconsidering as a multi-district solution.

The other four areas he proposes for homeless encampments are Overtown, Allapattah, Liberty City, and Little Havana, all of which are predominantly African-American and Latin-American neighborhoods.

“There has to be a deliberate effort to move people towards the things that they need,” he says. “At the end of the day, all four districts are access points to those needs. These places are closer to the hospitals, closer to the services, closer to the transit systems.”

NAACP President Dwight Bullard on the homelessness crisis in Miami and how the city should improve its approach to the issue.

Furthermore, the greatest concern with the “Transformation & Transition Zone” plan is that it focuses on temporary solutions for the homeless rather than permanent ones.

Mayor of Miami-Dade County Daniella Levine Cava showed her opposition to the proposal in a public letter to the Board of County Commissioners.

“Providing a safe and desirable, permanent housing option is the fastest way to reduce the concentration of people on the streets, promote housing stability for vulnerable populations and foster clean, revitalized neighborhoods that address the quality of life for all,” she stated. “A shelter-only zone like the proposed ‘Transition Zone’ will exacerbate the bottleneck that is created when insufficient safe and healthy extremely affordable housing options are available for those experiencing homelessness”

The bottleneck effect is exactly what organizations like Camillus House are battling every day in their temporary homeless shelters.

“The concept was always going to be a challenge from a ‘Not in my backyard’ perspective. This is not surprising because it’s a challenge to build permanent housing, even to build affordable housing,” adds Fernandez. “The end goal is always getting people off the street permanently and trying to invest in those permanent solutions.”  

As the city commission and Miami-Dade County collaborate to find the best approach to permanent housing this month, it might be beneficial to compare how other cities with rampant homelessness are handling the issue.

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Karen Bass recently proposed a solution to homelessness with a nine-part plan focusing on structures throughout the city that are already built.

According to the Los Angeles Times, this plan offers a combination of interim and permanent housing that already exists or is under construction and thousands of market units using rental subsidies that have been issued but not used. 

Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami previously cited infrastructure and funding as major concerns for the “Transition Zone,” thus putting the plan on hold. However, Bass’ plan suggests that underutilized hotels, motels, office and retail buildings across the city be converted into permanent housing space at a low cost to the city.

Nonetheless, Fernandez believes the hold on the housing plan will give the city and county a chance to come to a consensus amidst the negative feedback from the public.

“I can appreciate that they’re trying to come up with a response for their own community,” says the CEO. “If nothing else, it’s really created an opportunity for some really good honest dialogue. The city came up with an outside-the-box solution and obviously stirred up a lot of concerns and questions. I think it’s a good start.”

Taylor Gutierrez is a Cuban-American digital journalism student and intends to pursue a career as a multimedia journalist, combining her passions for writing and photography. Gutierrez currently works as a Communications Associate for FIU's Institute of Environment where she discusses issues within the field of environmental science. She hopes her writing will help bridge the gap in communication between media consumers and the scientific research community.