MIAMI — Long after Miami Heat fans had gone home after watching LeBron James recently drop 27 points in defeating the Los Angeles Lakers at the glistening AmericanAirlines Arena, some other numbers were going up just across the street in the shadows of the landmark Freedom Tower on palm tree-lined Biscayne Boulevard in the city’s downtown.
What appeared to be a corpse in a black body bag turned out to be a homeless person sleeping underneath a black comforter on the sidewalk where Cuban exiles fleeing Fidel Castro started their journey to new lives in a land of promise and hope.
That would be a stark irony for Liz Regaldo, who would soon discover on Northwest Sixth Street where many of the city’s poor settle in for the night, bundling up under heavy clothing and blankets to stay warm as temperatures dip into the lower 50s from a cold front that swept into South Florida two days earlier.
Regaldo, who works for The Chapman Trust, a charitable foundation, is part of a team taking part in the Homeless Census Count, a semi-annual outing where volunteers canvass the city’s dangerous streets with police officers to count and document the whereabouts of the poor all over Miami-Dade County.
Organized by Miami-Dade’s Homeless Trust, volunteers start the effort at 10 a.m. this day at the City Switchboard of Miami, where 70 volunteers are divided into teams of four or five members to scour neighborhoods from Homestead to Bal Harbour to Aventura to count the homeless. Each team is headed by a captain, usually a full-time city outreach worker, who knows the area well from his or her fulltime job interacting with and providing shelter and other needs for the chronic homeless, those who have lived on the streets for years.
Team No. 8 is Regaldo’s group who will roam the streets of downtown, traditionally the place where the most homeless people sleep within footsteps of multi-million-dollar buildings, including the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the AmericanAirlines Arena, the new Perez Arts Museum of Miami and the soon-to-open Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science.
This district is part of the area which Regalado’s North Downtown team will canvass. Their assigned territory includes Northwest 17th Street near the Omni/Performing Arts District to Southwest Fifth Street to the south. The east-west boundaries include Biscayne Bay to Northwest First Avenue, the borderline of city’s historic predominantly black Overtown neighborhood and a popular haven for the homeless.
On the team are Trish and Dan Bell, a wealthy but charitable couple from Coral Gables who retired after selling the pharmaceutical company they founded to Abbot Labs years ago. Trish Bell serves as chairwoman on the Chapman Trust Foundation.
Another volunteer, Hilda Fernandez, is development director for the Homeless Trust of Miami-Dade County, and Holly Woodbury is another staff member of the Chapman Trust.
Team members help count the homeless as Regaldo, with clipboard and spreadsheet, checks boxes to indicate their gender, age and street location. These volunteers, who have been conducting the census for three years, have become adept at distinguishing between males and females, the young from the old. But in view of the cold weather, they confer with one another as the night is proving to be a challenge to identify the sex and age of the homeless sleeping fully covered from head to toe under blankets.
By policy and for safety reasons, volunteers cannot touch or disturb the homeless to get information. Instead, Regaldo would check the “Unknown” box. “It’s cold so we’re going to get a lot of those now,” Regaldo says.
A reporter rides with the team in a van as they make stops at major landmarks and sites where the homeless sleep nearby, the city becoming one of many stunning contrasts between the rich and the poor.
Across the street where sopranos dazzle the well-heeled crowds at the posh Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, volunteers come across two black homeless males in their 30s sleeping at the front entrance of the Miami-Dade County School Board building on Northwest 16th Street.
In the eerie darkness, volunteers comb through bushes and trees with flashlights in the parking lot of the empty former Miami Herald headquarters at it languishes under its new owners who plan to demolish the building to make way for a new casino on Biscayne Bay. The volunteers find a homeless white male in his 30s and two “unknowns.”
Deep in their search, team members begin to scatter and disappear into the dark. “We need to stay together,” cautions James Burnat, a police officer of six years. “We have to play it safe. Someone can jump out of nowhere.”
As the Metromover train pulls into the Museum Park station, volunteers search the area near the park and under the bridge of the McArthur Causeway to Miami Beach and count seven homeless men, the majority of them black and mostly in their 40s. One man asleep on a mattress awakens to the sound of footsteps and other noises. “Excuse me, sir, do you have any food?” he asks the reporter.
Among the seven counted is a man sleeping next to a shopping cart of clothes next to the Perez Museum, which opened last December, and the coming $275-million Frost Science Museum, set to open in 2015.
City leaders and advocates for the homeless are at odds over the plan to make Miami a world-class city while so many people have to live on the street.
On Jan. 12, city officials working with the ACLU revised The Pottinger Agreement, a 16-year-old agreement that protected the homeless from police abuse and harassment. The revised pact would give the homeless less rights and protections as city leaders seek to keep the poor out of view and away from tourists and the affluent at the new attractions.
On to Jungle Island off Biscayne Bay, where, two weeks earlier, top recording artist Beyoncé and her husband, hip hop mogul Jay Z, rented the site to throw a lavish birthday party for their 2-year-old daughter Ivy.
At this attraction, volunteers discover a Hispanic man with a patch over his right eye sleeping under a green comforter on a cardboard mat in a stairwell of a parking garage – the same area where another homeless man’s face was eaten off by a naked man nearly two years ago.
Sergio Torrez, a city Outreach worker, offers to find an indoor shelter for the man in South Miami-Dade County but he declines, saying he has to go for a medical check-up the next day after having eye surgery at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer’s Eye Institute. He is not supposed to stay there where he is because it’s a fire safety zone but Burnat the police officer and Torrez let him stay there for the night.
Near Overtown, under an underpass at Northwest First Avenue and 10th Street, volunteers stumble upon one of their biggest finds of the night. Six couples are sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk along a fence. One couple is a petite Hispanic woman and a black man.
At 12:10 a.m., Wayne Davis, captain of Team 7, radios in, saying his members have finished their count in Overtown and Wynwood, a far cry from years past, when volunteers usually end their work at 4 a.m.
Regaldo turns back and looks at Torrez and Holly, other volunteers. “I think we’re going to have some low numbers,” she says.
“We haven’t hit the core yet,” Holly responds. Holly is referring to Northwest Sixth Street, where volunteers last year counted nearly 100 homeless people along the street from Biscayne Boulevard, site of the Freedom Tower to North Miami Avenue, the site of the former Miami Arena.
Regaldo calls the street “the feeder,” where, during the day, homeless people chase down cars asking drivers for food. Foam takeout containers and bottles litter the street and parking lots.
Over the next several years, the homeless will be in close proximity to the better-off, with the upscale Mall at the Miami World Center just one block north on Seventh Street. Macy’s and Bloomingdales will anchor the mall on 10 acres that will stretch to 10th Street.
At the former Miami Arena site, a Marriott Marquis World Convention Center Hotel will be erected as part of the retail project, according to MDM Development, which has purchased the land.
In the same area, volunteers count three more homeless black males at the Park/West Metromover station one block west of the AmericanAirlines Arena before arriving at the place that will give them their biggest count: Northwest Sixth Street.
Here, at 1:15 am, volunteers quickly get out of the van and spring into action after seeing many homeless people next to one another as the early morning hours turn colder. At North Miami Avenue and Sixth Street, under an old, abandoned motel, a row of homeless men, mostly black, have staked out their spots under an overhang.
Jimmy Collins has been homeless for four years and sleeps in a tent on Sixth Avenue. He says he works at a nearby U-Haul truck rental company but doesn’t make enough to get off the streets. He’s hoping Torrez can help him find a temporary place to stay in South Dade even if it means catching a bus and Metrorail to work. “That would be a blessing,” he tells the reporter.
The team counts up to 30 homeless people on Sixth Street alone. With 10 blocks to canvass, it will be three more hours until their work ends for the night.
ERICK JOHNSON/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
NOWHERE TO SLEEP: Homeless people sleep on a Miami city street at Northwest Sixth Street and North Miami Avenue on Jan. 23.