MIAMI – The rights of hundreds of the city’s homeless population are in the hands of a federal judge who has to sign off on a landmark settlement that was recently changed to give less freedom and protection to the poor living on the streets.

The Miami City Commission last week unanimously approved a new version of the 16-year-old Pottinger settlement, a historic federal agreement that gave the homeless substantial rights, including an end to unwarranted arrests and harassment by police.

The approval capped a month of intense negotiations and disputes between city officials and the American Civil Liberties which negotiated the original settlement in 1998 to balance the city’s efforts to revitalize old neighborhoods with the needs of the homeless.

According to The Miami Herald, to negotiations came after city leaders filed a petition last September to amend the agreement, arguing that the Pottinger settlement was outdated and needed to reflect Miami’s economic growth as a bustling metropolis.

The negotiations came after city leaders filed a petition last September to amend the agreement, arguing that the Pottinger settlement was outdated and needed to reflect Miami’s economic growth as a bustling metropolis.

Miami’s downtown population has doubled in recent years to 70,000 people who visit more than 200 retail stores and restaurants in the area. Residents living in upscale condominiums complain about the homeless begging and emptying human waste on the street.

An estimated 500 homeless people live on downtown streets, many setting up camp in Overtown just yards away  from a  planned upscale shopping complex that will include Bloomingdales and Macy’s on the site of the old Miami Arena, where the Miami Heat played before moving east to the AmericanAirlines Arena on Biscayne Boulevard in 1999.

City leaders point to Miami’s declining homeless population county-wide, which decreased from 8,000 to 800 since the original agreement, perhaps because of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, an agency created to reduce homeless populations by helping the poor off the streets and into

rehabilitative programs that help them find jobs and build productive lives.

But advocates of the homeless say economic progress should not come at the expense of the rights and freedoms of the poor to live on the streets without harassment.

“The bottom line is that it’s wrong to arrest people for essentially being homeless,” said Stephen Schnably, an attorney with ACLU and a law professor at the University of Miami.

City officials initially proposed tougher changes to the settlement but were turned down, according to The Herald. Still, under the new agreement the homeless will no longer have several benefits seen as life-sustaining. They will not be permitted to light fires in parks to cook or build tents to sleep.  Also, while they may still sleep on sidewalks, they cannot block the right-of-way of pedestrians.

The homeless may not relieve themselves or bathe when there is a public restroom within a quater of a mile. Convicted sex offenders who are also homeless were stripped of the same benefits they shared with other homeless people.

The new agreement does not address the power of the police to detain the

chronically homeless if they refuse help three times within 180 days or whether police can seize property if a homeless person leaves his or her space for 12 hours.

As downtown business development continues to increase over the years, city leaders may file a petition to change the agreement again to reflect future needs but still must work with the courts and the ACLU on any new settlement. Still, the city’s latest petition to the court has homeless advocates on alert.

“Our view was that the city’s original proposals were pretty sweeping and would have basically eliminated the Pottinger Settlement,” Schnably said.

A series of meetings to inform the homeless of the new Pottinger agreement will be held once U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno signs the documents on a date yet to be determined, Schnably said. The meetings will be held at the Camillus House which provides shelter, food and clothing to the poor.

In a related development, advocates for the homeless advocates are divided over the city’s approval of a plan to help Camillus House purchase 100 mats for the homeless to sleep on in the pavilion, an open patio that’s off the streets in a more secured setting.

Basically, the mats plan would add to the shelter’s overall sleeping arrangements, increasing the chances of the homeless being arrested if they refuse to go to one where beds are available, in accordance with the Pottinger agreement.

“I don’t believe they’ve done very much to help the homeless,” said Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, who argued that the mats plan is a setback in getting the chronic homeless off the streets, encouraging the poor to sleep more comfortably outdoors.

Anita Martin, a single mother who became a success story after spending 15 years on the street before turning her life around, getting a job and an apartment, says the mats do more harm than good for the homeless.

“They were terrible,” said Martin, who works as a customer service clerk at a Publix Supermarket just off Brickell Avenue.

“The mats gave closer access that made you more vulnerable on the floor. When you’re laying down there, you have people close to you drinking and smoking.”

“Mats are not the solution,” Book said. “This is all part of a beautification program instead of having a proven solution.”

“That’s his opinion,” said Paul Ahr, president of Camillus House. “To me, it’s not a question of mats versus beds. Our goal is to provide a safe and secure place that will get people off the street.”