A 20-page report prepared by the City of Miami lists Virginia Key as an “optimal” location for housing homeless residents and is up for discussion before the City Commission Thursday. Within hours of it becoming public, opposition mounted both in and off Key Biscayne.
Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book said the idea would endanger millions in federal funding for homeless programs. He said the entire notion of encampments instead of permanent housing would violate Housing and Urban Development guidelines.
The report was ordered by the commission earlier in the year, a city spokesperson said. The Virginia Key location was specifically mentioned by Commissioner Joe Carollo last year.
Ken Russell, another commissioner running for Congress, quickly blasted the idea.
“We have an incredible support system of partners that need our continued investment. Building our own tent city to criminalize homelessness and put them on an island is not the solution for their future or our city,” he said in a statement.
Key Biscayne leaders said they had been blindsided.
Joe Rasco, who is running for Key Biscayne mayor, is also the chair of the Virginia Key Advisory Board. He said he first learned of the agenda item yesterday.
“It’s something that just popped up,” he said, saying he plans to speak before the City Commission. He said it may just be a case of one Miami city department not talking to another.
“The city works in silos. This is coming from the Department of Human Services, not the parks department.”
He said a homeless camp does not comply with the master plan for Virginia Key, adding that he’d been in contact with District 7 Commissioner Raquel Regalado, who told him she had concerns about the project. “We are going to aggressively follow it,” Rasco said.
Robert Vernon, a former mayor who also sits on the city’s Virginia Key Advisory Board, called it a “slap in the face,” adding that it wasn’t the first time the panel had been blindsided by a city project, citing the relocation of the Ultra Music Festival to Virginia Key in 2019.
In reviewing five locations, city staff said Virginia Key was one of two optimal spots for a homeless “Transformation & Transition Zone” in a slide deck with photos of locations and various options for tents and temporary structures.
Virginia Key had high marks for a “secluded location” that was not close to residential buildings. A second optimal location was at NW 71st St. and NW 5th Place, near I-95. Other potential locations included
- 2451 NW 7th Ave,
- NW 6th Ave and NW 6th St.
- Miami parking lots 15 and 28
It’s not clear which city officials came up with the priority list or how the sites were evaluated. A message for Carollo was not returned.
Book, the Homeless Trust leader, said Commissioner Carollo should drop the idea.
“There is no way to make it compliant. It is so opposite of everything we have ever done,” Book said, adding that no one in the city had contacted the Trust for input or best practices.
“It was a parachute, today,” he said.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.