Miami hits pause on a lousy plan to put homeless on an island. Now what? | Editorial

·3 min read
Pedro Portal/pportal@miamiherald.com

Miami has shelved an ill-conceived plan to move its homeless population to an encampment of tiny homes on Virginia Key for at least six months, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Commissioner Joe Carollo announced Monday.

It’s both a refreshing victory for common sense and the right thing to do for our fellow humans — even if it does come only after mounting opposition from the likes of Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust and Miami Homes for All.

Ostensibly, this six-month pause is so the city can turn its attention to working with the groups that help people living on the street. As we said when Carollo first proposed this idea, that’s what should have happened all along, instead of trying to push the city’s homeless population into a location unsuitable in several ways.

But we hope the extended time-out is a signal that the proposal is well and truly dead. It would have been costly for taxpayers, bad for the environment, insensitive in its proximity to the historic Black beach on the key and risky in a hurricane. As housing advocates have argued, permanent low-income housing is a better solution than temporary shelter in tiny homes on an island.

Levine Cava, in a memo listing the county’s concerns about the proposal, said running water and sewer lines to Virginia Key could cost up to $3 million. The location also is far from basic services routinely needed by people experiencing homelessness — medical attention, for example, and public transportation. Virginia Key is in a high-risk area for hurricanes, including for storm surge, so the city and county would have to commit evacuation resources.

Tone-deaf location

The plan was also tone deaf, putting the encampment in proximity to Miami’s first beach for Black residents. It was opened in 1945 after a civil-rights campaign. The manager of the historic beach park is opposed to the tiny-houses plan. The encampment was supposed to be about a mile from the actual park, but that’s still close by. What message would the city be sending to its Black residents?

There may be potential land-use violations as well. The county deeded land on Virginia Key to the city in 1982. Could the deed restriction could be the basis of a movement to take ownership of the land away from the city.

And then there are the environmental issues. The county has spent about $2.5 million restoring the habitat, an effort stretching back to the 1990s and including coastal upland and wetlands on the key, which is a barrier island. Kayakers, hikers and cyclists have been protesting the idea, which was approved on July 28.

The vote was 3-2, with commissioners Carollo, Christine King and Alex Díaz de la Portilla — who changed his vote late in the meeting — voting for it. Commissioners Ken Russell and Manolo Reyes opposed it.

Moving ahead

If there is a positive side to this entire episode, it’s that Miami is talking more concretely about how to handle homelessness in the community. No one should have to step over human excrement or syringes to walk down a sidewalk, edge past a tent on public property or worry about getting into a business when someone is sleeping on the doorstep. We understand Carollo’s concerns; we disagree with the way he wants to handle the issue.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Raquel Regalado, whose district includes Virginia Key, has a commendable approach. She opposes the location but not necessarily all the ideas the county has put forth. She’s holding public informational meetings and wants to encourage conversation on what to do next.

Miami won’t solve its homeless problem by setting up an island encampment of tiny houses far from services. It was a poorly thought-out idea from the start. But with more of Regalado’s attitude, perhaps a better and longer-term answer can be found. If that’s the case, the time and taxpayer money spent on this bad idea might not be a total waste after all.