Dire need for COVID-19 shots adds urgency to Miami homeless advocates’ refrain

City workers in Miami clearing out a homeless encampment in Overtown last May. Photo: Rachel Gilmer/Dream Defenders

By Noreen Marcus,

Civil rights lawyers and activists are agitating for Miami police to stop disrupting homeless people by emptying their camps.

It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning in a pandemic.

“We … write to demand that the city immediately cease its ongoing wave of cruel and destructive sweeps of homeless encampments,” says a letter sent last week from a group led by the Greater Miami ACLU to Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.

The Feb. 23 letter reacts to a Feb. 10 sweep of a homeless camp in Overtown on Northwest 17th Street between Northwest 5th and 9th avenues, “inflict[ing] serious trauma and property loss on those affected.” It says more police actions are expected in Overtown and near the Miami Rescue Mission in Wynwood.

Miami Rescue Mission at 2020 NW 1st Ave.

There’s nothing new about the complaint, which cites a 1998 legal agreement by the city of Miami to respect the human rights of homeless people. Over the following years, protests about unchecked violations erupted regularly; they amped up starting in 2019, when Miami federal judges stopped monitoring compliance.

Razed homeless camp in Ft. Lauderdale

Now the activists have scientific support. Unless adequate housing is available, “allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” says an Aug. 6 guideline from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Miami isn’t the only city accused of ignoring the humanity and rights of homeless people.

homeless camp
Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Robert McKinzie

Last fall Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Robert McKinzie was called out — by Mayor Dean Trantalis, among others — for bullying residents of a tent camp near a Salvation Army store until they abandoned it. The northwest Fort Lauderdale camp was razed and replaced with a parking lot.

What’s new about the Miami activists’ complaint is the context. In the best of times, homelessness is a complex, intractable problem that draws passionate and divisive responses. But these are the worst of times if you’re rootless and alone in pandemic-stricken South Florida.

Stories abound of the working poor, including essential workers, forced to live in their cars or on the streets. A flood of pandemic-related evictions and foreclosures is expected to swell their ranks.

Like hunting Beyonce tickets

Many of the homeless are elderly. One out of four is over 55, according to recent data from the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, a county services coordinator. The percentage is based on an analysis of heads of households by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to the trust.

The pandemic is not only forcing some seniors out of their homes; it’s increasing the likelihood they’ll get seriously ill or die. They’re nowhere near the front of the vaccine line.

Dr. Armen Henderson

“When Jackson [public hospital] announces it has the vaccine on Twitter, people from all around Florida act like they’re applying for a Beyonce ticket. Of course you’re gonna leave people out,” said Dr. Armen Henderson of the University of Miami, a signer of the Feb. 23 letter. “I think that’s the hardest barrier, just getting a damn appointment.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken flak for steering the most generous vaccine contracts and supplies to Publix and other financial supporters, partisans like Bay of Pigs veterans and enclaves in politically friendly counties. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah joked that DeSantis invites medical tourists to “Club Vax.”

Responding to criticism that the vaccine program underserves hard-hit communities of color, DeSantis announced Thursday the opening of six more sites for seniors 65 and older and frontline health care workers. Two are in Miami-Dade, at the Overtown Youth Center and a Haitian community center at the north end of the county.

Homeless hiding in plain sight

Even where there’s plenty of vaccine, Floridians complain about waits and glitches in registering for shots online and by cellphone. Those who lack a computer, a phone and transportation can only hope a vaccine provider will come find them.

Assuming they want to be found.

Jeff Weinberger

“A lot of homeless people try to stay hidden out of fear of being abused by cops or mean humans,” said Jeff Weinberger, an activist who tried and failed to interest the Broward County inspector general in last year’s Fort Lauderdale tent camp debacle.

Their timidity makes it difficult to count the homeless. According to official estimates, 2,400 live on the streets of Broward County. In Miami-Dade, these are the figures the trust reported for Jan. 21: 2,353 in shelters and 892 unsheltered; also, as of Feb. 24, 378 quarantined in hotels.

Weinberger said the unsheltered numbers are too low “by a factor of at least two or three.”

‘Same disease, different day’

They live quietly desperate lives, according to John Schmidt, who keeps close tabs on drug addicts in Miami, many of them sick and homeless.

“When you find people who have money are gonna get the help more rapidly, getting loaded becomes a little bit easier,” said Schmidt, a reformed heroin addict. “Dying becomes more OK. It’s nothing to fight anymore because there’s no reason to fight it.”

John Schmidt

“The same people who are OD-ing are catching COVID,” he said. “Same disease, different day.” For many years Schmidt has campaigned to build a residential drug treatment facility in Miami.

Because of the hidden homeless, coronavirus is a public health menace on steroids. If they’re invisible, by choice or design, they can’t get vaccinated. They may be hiding in plain sight as grocery bag boys, parking lot attendants, home health care workers–all in close contact with the general population.

And if they’re maskless and aren’t vaccinated, forget about containing COVID-19.

Straying from herd immunity

“If you don’t devise a solution with the most vulnerable population at heart, then your solution is trash,” UM’s Henderson said. “The problem is that if you’re trying to get to herd immunity and you’re not addressing shelters and jails, we’re never gonna get the thing under control. Never.”

The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust has teams on the ground to connect unsheltered residents with shots. The trust could extend its outreach, but internecine warfare gets in the way.

Ron Book at a January 2020 press conference on the homeless

On one side is Ron Book, who’s worked with the homeless trust for 26 years, 14 of them as chairman. He applies his contacts and experience as a career lobbyist to COVID testing and a vaccination program for the elderly.

Book claims to run the most successful such effort in the country. The program had scheduled 332 shots as of Thursday, according to the trust.

“My goal is to get my population completely vaccinated by mid-summer,” Book said last week. He’s also trying to raise $6 million to buy Mia Casa, a 118-bed adult living facility for the elderly in North Miami.

Book versus Henderson

“We have only lost eight lives, which is eight lives too many. But find me an urban community that has mitigated the spread, the hospitalizations, like we have and I’ll eat a hat,” Book said.

On the other side is Henderson, the UM faculty advisor to medical students who started the Dade County Street Response Disaster Relief Team after Hurricane Irma in 2017. It’s in a coalition with nonprofits including Dream Defenders, the Miami Climate Alliance and The Smile Trust.

Henderson said the coalition approached Book and county leaders in August about partnering for COVID testing and vaccine distribution. They were rebuffed.

Book touted his partnerships with state and local health and emergency management officials. He said he wants nothing to do with the coalition or Henderson, whom he attacked personally.

“For nearly a year, Dr. Henderson has been trying to undermine the efforts of the Homeless Trust in an attempt to get attention as well as funding from the county for his unproven, unscientific and, quite frankly, dangerous initiatives — initiatives that have helped build some of the most unsanitary and unsafe tent cities in Overtown,” Book said through a spokesperson.

“He continues to levy completely false, ad hominem attacks on me and our organization,” Book added.

A conflict of interest?

The mild-mannered Henderson didn’t respond in kind. But he accused Book of having a conflict of interest in that he lobbies for Geo Group, a Boca Raton-based private prison company.

The accusation reflects different approaches to homelessness. Book wants to end it. Henderson considers it a chronic condition that the government should stop criminalizing.

“You’re not solving anything unless you look at homelessness as a public health issue that is multi-faceted and the Homeless Trust, they just don’t get that,” Henderson said. “It’s like, what are you really solving if you’re not? And that’s why it’s a profound conflict of interest for Book to be a lobbyist for Geo Group and he doesn’t even understand that.”

Still, Henderson said, “I’m OK with working together. That’s no problem for me.”

Book denied the conflict of interest charge. He said he works effectively within the existing system.

At least Miami-Dade has people like Book and Henderson who receive some level of institutional support for homeless vaccine outreach. That doesn’t appear to be true in Broward County.

‘No infrastructure’ for homeless in Broward

“There’s no infrastructure for that here,” activist Weinberger responded to a question about getting the vaccine to Broward’s homeless.

Broward County Mayor Steve Geller did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

But Scott DiMarzo, CEO of the Broward TaskForce Fore Ending Homelessness, spoke briefly with Florida Bulldog about vaccine distribution.

“We’re not involved in that at this point,” he said. “It’s hit or miss in the state and it’s hit or miss in Broward County in terms of who’s allowed to get the vaccine, who can cut in line and who needs it more.”

DiMarzo said he doesn’t want to criticize any politicians. But he sounded discouraged when he said that although his employees deal directly with the homeless, they aren’t treated like first responders.

“We’re not considered part of the program right now,” DiMarzo said. “If we were, my staff would be vaccinated.”

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