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Miami Beach

Homeless people stuck in Miami Beach by trespassing arrests and fines now have a way out

Raphaelle Lo has lived on the streets of Miami Beach, sleeping in alleyways, for the past four years.

The Minnesota native has been trying to get back to St. Paul, where a friend is willing to take her in, but doesn't have enough money for a bus ticket. She said she's afraid to stay at a shelter because she was attacked at one in Minnesota and would rather take her chances sleeping outside. In the meantime, she said she's been arrested roughly a dozen times, mainly for trespassing, although she's also been arrested for cocaine and marijuana possession.

Miami Beach offers bus vouchers to homeless people who have a friend or family member in another city willing to help, but Lo said she hasn't been able to take advantage of the program because she owes more than $400 in court fees. And the longer she spends on the streets in Miami Beach, she said, the more she gets in trouble for trespassing.

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"Because they're not giving me a bus pass, I get arrested and I owe more court costs. It's a vicious cycle," she said on Tuesday afternoon, sitting in SoundScape park. "It's hard because my kids are mad at me because they haven't seen me in four years."

Lo's experience is not uncommon in Miami Beach, where roughly 95 percent of the homeless population first began living on the streets in another city and moved here later, according to city estimates, and where homeless people say they are frequently arrested for trespassing and other misdemeanors, which can result in hundreds of dollars in fines and court fees.

Until recently, homeless people in Miami Beach weren't eligible for bus vouchers if they had unpaid court fees because city policy disqualified people with court debts from taking advantage of the relocation services.

Raphaelle Lo, a homeless woman from Minnesota, has lived on the streets in Miami Beach for the past four years. Kyra Gurney

Valerie Navarrete, a Miami Beach activist who serves on the city's Committee on the Homeless, said that over the past few years she's spoken with dozens of homeless people who told her they wanted to go home, but had been unable to get a bus voucher because of court debts.

"We have people of all ages on the streets," Navarrete said. "Whatever age you are, if you have somebody that can give you a hand, that can give you a sparkle of hope, and you can't get there, that's just inhumane."

The practice also drew criticism from Legal Services of Greater Miami, a legal aid group that reviewed the policy at the committee's request. "We are concerned because in order for a homeless person to get back on their feet, having a support system is essential," said TerryAnn Howell, a staff attorney. "If they're able to go back home to their support system and get their lives back together, they'll have a chance to pay their court fees."

Last week, the committee passed a motion urging Miami Beach officials to facilitate the relocation of homeless people with unpaid court fees. The Miami New Times also reported on the issue.

Now, the city has decided to change its policy. Starting this week, a homeless person with unpaid court debts can get a bus voucher if he or she gets permission from a judge. The relocation services are offered to homeless people once per lifetime if the city is able to verify — usually by making a phone call — that a friend or family member outside Miami-Dade County is willing and able to help.

But it remains to be seen whether judges will sign off on the relocation of homeless people with unpaid court fees and whether bus tickets are the best way to help Miami Beach's homeless population, which faces unique challenges.

Maria Ruiz, the city's Director of Housing and Community Services, said it's unusual for a city to have such a large percentage of its homeless population come from outside the area.

"Our population is an anomaly in many ways," she said. "We're dealing with everybody else's homeless."

Jaime McNeil, 34, of California talks with officers from Homeless Outreach at Lummus Park in South Beach on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. PATRICK FARRELL

The size of Miami Beach's homeless population also fluctuates, with some people living on the streets or in shelters for intermittent periods throughout the year, Ruiz said.

More than 1,500 people in Miami Beach reported being homeless at some point during the 2016-17 fiscal year, according to city data. On any given day, an average of at least 90 homeless people are on the city's streets, a number that has been steadily decreasing, according to Miami Beach figures. So far this fiscal year, the city has helped 85 homeless people relocate.

Ruiz said that while the city changed its bus policy in response to the committee's decision, she believes homeless people have a better shot at building a new life somewhere else if they've taken advantage of the city's employment services to find a job and paid their court debts first.

"You can't start fresh if you have a case that follows you," she said, adding that the unpaid fees could negatively affect credit scores. "It breaks my heart because I know at the end of the day I'm pushing my problem on someone else."

Navarrete agrees that having court debts follow a homeless person to another city isn't an ideal solution, but she believes that homeless people who have a friend or family in another city should get a bus voucher regardless. She said one possible solution might be a homeless court program — similar to programs in other U.S. cities including Detroit and Phoenix — that enable homeless people to get their court fees waived if they agree to accept homeless services.

Although there are no homeless shelters in Miami Beach, the city has 107 beds allocated for its homeless population in shelters in Miami-Dade County. The city provides transportation to the shelters, in addition to job training and support group services.

But there are still homeless people in Miami Beach who fall through the cracks. In order to qualify for a bed in a homeless shelter, a person has to be homeless in Miami Beach for at least 30 days, except people who are living on the street with their children. Some homeless people, like Raphaelle Lo, are afraid to go to shelters because they believe they're unsafe. Others struggle with mental illness or drug addiction or are unable to find a job despite their best efforts, Navarette said.

On Tuesday afternoon, roughly a dozen homeless people were resting in the shade in Lummus Park. Luz Maria Serrano sat under a tree while her husband slept nearby. Serrano said she was from Puerto Rico and had become homeless in South Florida after struggling to find an apartment she could afford. Serrano said she and her husband had spent the last four months in Miami Beach and had been waiting for about a week for beds to open up in a shelter. The couple had been trying to find a place to live in Miami Beach, she said, but "it's too expensive."

Nearby, a homeless man who identified himself only as Alfonso was sitting in a beach chair. He said he'd been arrested six times in Miami Beach in recent years for trespassing, but he wasn't sure how much he owed in court fees. Although he'd lived in New York before coming to South Florida, Alfonso said he hadn't tried to get a bus ticket back to New York or to anywhere else. He wasn't convinced he'd be better off in another city.

"It's the same everywhere," he said.

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