Sick of what they say are officials' broken promises, the poor take over a
lot in Liberty City and call it home.
Maya Bell | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted November 13, 2006
MIAMI - squatters village rising on public land in the heart of one of
Miami's poorest neighborhoods doesn't have even the barest comforts of home.
A dozen shanties, made from pallets and plywood, are each just big enough
to accommodate two mattresses and a few meager belongings. There is no
running water, electricity or refrigeration. The bathroom consists of a
portable toilet, and a large, round mirror, where men stoop to shave.
Yet most of the ragtag residents are finding something they never found in
jail, or under bridges or in homeless shelters where they often spent their
nights: a sense of community and purpose.
"This is a stand for action," said Jonathan Baker, 33, who until recently
lived under a Metrorail overpass. "If the county and the city aren't going
to live up to their promises to provide affordable housing, we'll do it
The stand began Oct. 23 when homeless, housing and other community
advocates, fed up with years of broken promises to build affordable housing
for Miami's poor, took control of a 1-acre lot in Liberty City and began
erecting the "Take Back the Land" Shantytown.
They have no permission to be on the city-owned parcel, but Max Rameau, a
community activist and one of the organizers, says they are operating under
the protection of a court agreement that forbids the arrest of homeless
people engaged in "life-sustaining" misdemeanors. That includes sleeping
and bathing in public, or trespassing and camping on public land.
For now, Miami police are treating the encampment as a protest and leaving
"It was decided to let them exercise their First Amendment rights," police
spokesman Delrish Moss said. For how long, he said, is up to the city,
raising the possibility that a showdown might be looming.
The new city official charged with developing the property said her office
is about to issue requests for proposals and is awaiting the "next step"
from the city attorney.
But City Attorney Jorge Fernandez said he has yet to be contacted about the
The protesters are operating under a pact known as the Pottinger
Settlement, named after the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit. The
settlement came in 1998 after nearly 10 years of litigation over Miami's
treatment of its homeless, which a federal judge condemned as "offensive
It put a halt to the police practice of clearing the homeless from downtown
encampments by confiscating and burning their belongings -- often right
before Miami was to host an event that put the city in the spotlight, such
as the Super Bowl or a visit by the late Pope John Paul II.
In the ensuing years, local authorities established homeless shelters and
other outreach programs. But, Rameau says, city and county officials have
worsened the area's affordable-housing crisis by razing public or
low-income apartments, often letting the land lie fallow until developers
replace them with gleaming condos or other pricey dwellings well out of the
reach of the displaced.
A case in point, he said, is the once-garbage-strewn parcel now covered in
fresh mulch and dotted with the 12 pallet shanties and a few tents in the
heart of Liberty City, a predominantly black neighborhood plagued by crime
In 1997, Rameau said, the parcel housed the Martin Luther King Jr. Complex,
a privately owned three-story apartment building with 62 units and rat
holes in the walls, crumbling stair railings and leaky, smelly pipes.
When he and other activists complained about the deplorable conditions, the
city declared the complex uninhabitable and promptly evicted the residents.
The following year, the city purchased the property for $900,000, promising
to rebuild affordable and safe housing there for the displaced. But until
last month, the land remained vacant.
Today, Rameau says, he and a cadre of volunteers have done more in three
weeks to serve the overlooked than the city has managed in eight years.
Every night they are feeding and housing up to 15 people. And, he said,
they have every intention of making the shantytown, and others like it,
permanent and self-sustaining.
"It makes more sense to just take the land than continue going to
government for solutions," Rameau said. "All they do is lie to us, ignore
us, disrespect us, and then steal the money anyway."
Adding fuel to his charges are ongoing investigations into potential fraud
and other abuses at the Miami-Dade Housing Agency and the Model City Trust,
the quasi-city agency responsible for revitalizing the Liberty City area.
Last year, The Miami Herald reported that the county agency paid millions
of dollars to developers for affordable housing that was never built. And
this past July, a scathing city audit found that the trust, now called the
Liberty City Trust, has spent $8.5 million but has only rehabbed or rebuilt
eight homes in four years.
The former trust president is now gone and her replacement, Elaine Black,
conceded the property has lain dormant for too long, but she could not
"I do know that our mandate is to make sure development does occur on that
site and others," Black said. "There definitely is a need for housing, and
we are preparing requests for proposals."
As such, she is not happy about the shantytown, which she said is a "health
hazard" and the subject of complaints from nearby residents.
That's news to Rameau, though, who is counting on public support as much as
the Pottinger Settlement to protect the encampment. He notes that the
village is surviving almost solely on contributions from supporters,
including the residents of the apartment complex next door. They took up a
collection and made the first donation -- $7.
And as rudimentary as it is, the shantytown becomes more rooted every day.
Strangers regularly drop off boxed dinners, canned goods, clothes and other
supplies. A shower stall is under construction, and tomatoes and kale are
sprouting in box gardens.
Mornings usually start with coffee brewing on a "rocket stove," a pile of
bricks that funnels heat up. While some residents such as Baker head to the
labor pool, others help volunteers nail together another shelter, sheathing
the wood-pallet walls in cardboard and topping it with plywood.
Dinners are communal, and Fridays are movie nights, with a sheet serving as
the big screen and electricity borrowed from the neighboring apartment
complex running the laptop that doubles as a projector.
"The more support we get from the community, the more difficult it will be
for them to get us out," Rameau said. "The longer they wait, the bigger the
Maya Bell can be reached at mbell@... or 305-810-5003.
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