It has been over a month since City of Miami commissioners decided to table a plan to move houseless people to an encampment on the city’s only historic Black beach, Virginia Key. After public outcry from housing advocates, Miami’s Black community, and environmental advocates alike, the commissioners agreed to hold off on the plan until they could find a more appropriate location. But advocates are concerned the commissioners are just waiting for public outrage to die down and, in the meantime, are making moves to redevelop the beloved beach.
On Aug. 12, just four days after the city agreed to hold off on plans for the encampment, the City of Miami shut down the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, the only recreational center on the island, whose owner was particularly vocal against the city’s plan. City officials allege that the Outdoor Center owed $144,000 in rent and has provided no paperwork regarding their financials. But according to the Outdoor Center’s owner, Esther Alonso, the timing is suspicious, and she believes she is being targeted by the city commissioners for speaking out—paving the way for development on the island.
“[It is] very suspicious that the city[’s] forced closure and takeover is simply a precondition to the city then extending the sewer and utility lines to the campsite,” said David Peery, a housing advocate and the founder of Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equality, during a rally on Tuesday, Sept. 13. “Why are they shutting down Virginia Key Outdoor Center if they weren’t planning to push this obnoxious, this horrible plan?”
Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who voted against the encampment, said the eviction was “ill-timed” and created the perception of “cause and effect,” which Joe Carollo, and Christine King, who voted in favor of the encampment, denied. But, in addition to the abrupt closure, City of Miami commissioners also voted to replace the entire Virginia Key Trust Board, which operates the historic beach, with themselves. The commissioners voted during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13, a month after the Trust’s board members were also outspoken against the encampment plan. By replacing the board with commissioners and removing the outdoor nature center, the commissioners have removed two key obstacles to the encampment.
“The postponement is illusory, and it’s not real; it’s a political tactic to let the opposition die down because there’s been overwhelming public opposition to this,” said Peery. “It’s simply a tactic to wait and then ram it through in the dead of night like the Miami City Commission usually does with unpopular issues like this.”
According to reporting from the South Florida Times, Patrick Range Jr., the chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, believes the city’s motives lie with luxury real estate development and not with the Trust’s initial goal of restoring the beach park.
“For years, we had to ﬁght uphill battles because citizens don’t want to see it turned into a private property,” Range told the South Florida Times. “But I feel it’s related to the homeless encampment issue and the city’s agenda for the park.”
Virginia Key, the only beach Black people were allowed on beginning in 1945 during segregation, 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 by the City Commission, the beach has been reinvigorated and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. A Civil Rights Museum is currently being planned on the beach to memorialize the city’s condemnation of what Benjamin Waxman, board and legal panel member with the ACLU of Florida Greater Miami Chapter, said is a “shameless period of racial discrimination.”
“To banish homeless people, a population that is disproportionately Black, would be to undermine that message and to create yet again, another Jim Crow law that discriminates against Blacks,” said Waxman. “So for all these reasons, Virginia Key is not the answer. The answer is housing first, it’s wraparound services, it’s providing homeless people the assistance that they need, and that they want, to help themselves and to transition from homelessness into a life that they are able to enjoy. […] Until the city understands this and adopts this as a way to redress homelessness, we’re going to continue to have the same endless cycle of homelessness that we’ve unfortunately had for many, many years.”
Commissioners will officially vote on the ordinance in October to make the new Virginia Key Trust Board official. The new board would last for one year, after which the commissioners will be able to replace themselves with appointees of their choosing, which is a shift back to their former process.