In an eleventh hour reversal, City of Miami commissioners voted to move forward with a homeless camp, possibly on a plot of land on the barrier island of Virginia Key — a location home to a park, a sewage plant, federal research labs, and the MAST Academy magnet high school.
Village of Key Biscayne and county leaders panned the idea, and noted a camp on the otherwise uninhabited island faces huge logistical and practical challenges and months of regulatory approvals, if legally possible at all.
The idea – first raised by Commissioner Joe Carollo last September – was initially defeated, 2-3. But hours later in a marathon meeting, Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla revived it, even though he had criticized research by the city’s human services director, William Porro. Commissioners Manolo Reyes and Ken Russell both voted no.
The motion adopted Thursday night directs city staff to come back with a list of sites, including Virginia Key, with a proviso that the administration could build some small temporary homes on the island as pilot program. There is no announced start date for the project.
The plan identified five locations as potential sites for temporary shelters or shack housing that homeless individuals could voluntarily check into, provided they abide by a code of conduct that includes a zero tolerance for drinking, violence, or drugs. The sites would be managed by private subcontractors.
People who opted to reside in the encampment would be free to leave at any time and would not be in custody under the concept presented Thursday.
The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust and the Virginia Key Advisory Board were not consulted during the preparation of the proposal. According to the Trust’s latest homeless census in January, there were 591 unsheltered homeless persons within Miami city limits out of 892 homeless county wide.
Key Biscayne mayoral candidates Fausto Gomez and Joe Rasco spoke against the idea during public comment.
“This proposed use of land is not consistent with the Virginia Key Master Plan adopted by the city in 2010,” said Rasco, who chairs the Virgina Key Advisory Board, which he said was not consulted. Gomez agreed. “I urge you to be good neighbors with Key Biscayne, and the rest of Miami-Dade county.”
The Homeless Trust, the county agency tasked with reducing homelessness, said it would not be able to support or staff a camp on Virginia Key without endangering the U.S. Housing and Urban Development grants. Chair Ron Book said temporary encampments violate HUD rules. But Carollo rejected the warning, saying the city pays into the Trust and the agency is not dealing with homeless issues to his satisfaction.
But Christine King, a commissioner who also sits on the board of homeless housing provider Camillus House, praised the Virginia Key location as “ideal.” King bristled at references to the Virginia Key Master Plan, saying homelessness is not part of any person’s master plan.
The specific area depicted in Porro’s presentation is currently home to the north bike path trailhead, the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, and shares a property line with the county sewage plant.
The proposal continues to receive fierce opposition if not ridicule from environmentalists and cycling groups. The Miami Herald editorial board called the concept a “sick joke.”
“This is an ecological treasure,” said Diana Perez, operations director at the Virginia Key Outdoor Center. She, and other environmentalists, argue that the area is an sensitive area, and that placing an encampment next to protected waters will lead to new pollution in an already distressed Biscayne Bay.
Key Biscayne Village Manager Steve Williamson, who often built temporary housing for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the location has none of the required services in place to help homeless persons who often have multiple medical needs. He said the site would face a challenging permitting process.
According to Google Maps, the site is nearly two miles from the nearest bus stop, more than five from the nearest grocery store. It’s even further from employment, healthcare, or other rehabilitation services. Carollo suggested that trolleys could ferry homeless volunteers and even take them on shopping runs in Key Biscayne.
“Virginia Key does not strike me as a good place for such a program,” said Key Biscayne Mayor Mike Davey in a statement. “While I understand the importance of finding a way to assist people who are chronically homeless, Virginia Key does not strike me as a good place for such a program.”
Also opposed was Raquel Regalado, a county commissioner whose district includes Virginia Key.
“Creating an encampment on a barrier island is not the best long-term solution. We are meeting with city officials and the Homeless Trust to find other options,” she said in a statement.