a black man in a white wifebeater and grey pants sits in a folding chair on a sidwalk in front of a chainlink fence wit ha cooler, a bucket, and several bottles and bags surrounding him on both sides
A homeless man sits on a chair on a sidewalk in Miami, on Aug. 4, 2021. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Miami’s houseless community was almost relegated to the city’s only historic Black beach, an uninhabitable key five miles off the city’s mainland. City of Miami commissioners were determined to move the city’s houseless community to the northeastern shore of Virginia Key, the only beach Black people were allowed on beginning in 1945 during segregation. The initial decision was passed by a 3-2 vote on July 28, sparking opposition across the city by houseless people, advocates, supporters of Virginia Key’s ecology, and residents of the nearby, affluent Key Biscayne. But, the plans to place up to 100 tiny homes as a form of a permanent encampment have been put on hold. City Mayor Francis Suarez and Commissioner Joe Carollo, who sponsored the idea, said on Monday that they will hold off on the plan for at least six months. 

“This is part of a longstanding plan of [Carollo’s] to quote-unquote cleanse the city of the homeless and the poor,” said David Peery, a houseless advocate and the founder of Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equality. “He has been on a longstanding crusade to criminalize homelessness and to banish the homeless from the city. It reflects his bigotry against the poor and his desire, essentially, to banish the poor from the city and the homeless from the city.” 

Carollo and Suarez said they want to pause the plan to work with Miami-Dade County officials on making more shelter beds available, identify alternative sites for temporary housing, and stop releasing houseless people from jail within the city limits. The city commissioners will decide whether to pause the plan in September. 

“We don’t want to be in the business of doing tiny homes, getting involved with the homeless,” Carollo said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “But if the county doesn’t want to live up to the responsibility, then we have no choice to move on this.”

Carollo has been dreaming about moving the houseless community to Virginia Key since late October 2021, when the commission voted in favor of banning houseless encampments, but not enforceable until a permanent location could be established. For Carollo, that location would be Virginia Key—a storm surge risk area miles away from the nearest grocery store that would have necessitated sewer lines. 

“That’s a slap in the face,” Peery said. “It’s an affront. At the minimum, the optics don’t look good. If it’s not intentionally racist, it is indicative of somebody acting with complete blinders on who was totally unaware of the horrible optics that creates.”

According to Peery, the decision already reeks of racism, but, in Miami where 57% of the houseless population is Black, all policies regarding houselessness are going to have racial equity implications. For the approximately 40-60% of the population that works, commuting several miles without a car and using unreliable public transportation will become difficult if not impossible. 

“It’s either going to increase inequities or decrease them,” Peery said. “That’s a simple fact because it’s a mostly Black population that we’re dealing with here. This type of myopic action simply makes it worse.”

Virginia Key was once frequented by Smokey Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Brown. But, when beaches were integrated in the 1960s, Virginia Key’s popularity waned. Since 2000 when the Virginia Key Trust was established, it has been reinvigorated and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. 

According to Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, the organization was not consulted at all prior to the decision. Book said The Homeless Trust does not support any particular site and believes there are friendlier locations “from a community sensitivity perspective.” Book added that any tiny home site should have wraparound services, including case managers, and a low barrier of entry. According to Book, the commissioner’s plan indicated that they would put conditions on entry. But a “house first” model does not contemplate drug testing or mental health as a condition of entry into the housing.

While tiny homes, when created safely, could be effective as permanent supportive housing, Peery said there is no industry-wide standard as to what constitutes a tiny home. Many have reported substandard construction work on tiny homes.

“Everyone is entitled to certain minimum standards in terms of safe and habitable housing,” Peery said. “To relegate the poor to say maybe just a cubicle, a small cubicle that you could quite literally stretch out in these four walls, causes you to question whether this is habitable or not, which is unacceptable.”

If commissioners want to actually know how to end homelessness, Peery said they should start engaging with people who are experiencing homelessness. 

“That’s the first point, and unfortunately we as a society, as a culture have taken over the condescending point of view that they’re mentally ill drug addicts and they don’t know what they’re doing,” Peery said. “They think that the homeless commit crimes, when they mostly have crimes committed against them.”

While Virginia Key may not be the ultimate landing place for Carollo’s plan, Peery is certain the city will not waver on displacing the houseless community from Miami.

“They might pick a poor neighborhood, where the folks don’t have as much money, won’t have as much organized opposition,” Peery said. “But it’s not appropriate to create some new homeless ghetto or homeless encampments site regardless of where it is. We should put that money toward permanent housing, not toward trying to hide the issue, sweep it under the rug, or deport them to an internment camp on a deserted island.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...