Monday, November 13, 2006

Miami's Shantytown


Below, please read the latest news update on the Liberty City Shantytown from the Orlando Sentinel/South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Also, click on the link to the story, where you can find good pictures of the shantytown.

Also, check out this link to an indy media video on the same:

If you have not already done so, please visit our blog to sign the petition and donate to the cause:


Max Rameau
Center for Pan-African Development
Take Back the Land,0,7312775.story?coll=orl-news-headlines-state

Miami's shantytown

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

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 ourselves."

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 alone.

"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 issue.

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 and repugnant."

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 and poverty.

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 explain why.

"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 outcry."

Maya Bell can be reached at or 305-810-5003.

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