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How a Plan to Relocate ‘Homeless’ to Virginia Key Came Under Fire: Its Launch, Protests, and Subsequent Halt

es un buen plan para los sin techo crónicos de nuestra comunidad. Será un refugio seguro en el que podremos prestar servicios sociales directos in situ a quienes más lo necesitan y desean. Para aprobar el punto y comenzar el proceso ahora, necesitábamos seleccionar una ubicación. Para ser claros, no se trata de la histórica playa negra ni del centro al aire libre. Esas ubicaciones nunca se propusieron. Cualquiera que diga que se propuso está difundiendo deliberadamente información errónea.

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Update, 8/13/2022, 10:45 AM: On August 12, the Virginia Key Outdoor Center was closed indefinitely by Miami Police officers in a new controversy related to the resort and recreation center. Its owner, Ester Alonso, denounced that the closure may be due to retaliation against her for actively opposing the city’s plan. A city spokesman said that the closure was due to law enforcement for some code violations by the center.

NO ONE WANTS their city to be like San Francisco, NYC, or LA, where homelessness multiplies as ineffective state and charitable measures to curb the causes for this rampant issue. Homelessness, after all, is a remarkably complex problem that requires impeccable planning to address. It is no exaggeration to say that homelessness is wiping out many American cities, including Miami which is already becoming a political and social point of discussion. That is why the City’s Commission, two weeks ago, tried to introduce a controversial plan to move homeless people to the island of Virginia Key. The proposal, for the moment, failed. This doesn’t mean, however, it’s dead.

The controversial approval

In late July, activists who didn’t want to see Virginia Key Island become the site of a homeless encampment were happily going home after leaving City Hall. The Miami Commission had voted 3-2 against a homeless relocation proposal. It had five potential locations, including an open, vacant lot at the back of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center, near exclusive Fisher Island.


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Screenshot of the Miami Commission plan to relocate homeless people to Virginia Key

The plan was to build about 100 tiny houses on Virginia Key for homeless individuals. Other locations were also being studied, including 2451 NW 7th Ave, a property at the corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Sixth Street, and some lots owned by the Miami Parking Authority under Interstate 95 downtown.

Activists thought they had triumphed, but, just days later, the Commission voted again and Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla — who had voted against the pilot program — reversed course entirely, successfully calling for a review of the proposal and then joining his colleagues Joe Carollo and Christine King in voting for it. No one saw it coming.

Commissioner de la Portilla has not responded to requests for comment on why he opted to change his vote.

This is not the first time in Miami that a controversial proposal, rejected in the first instance, ends up being approved once the politicians get cold feet.

In July, the Miami-Dade County School Board, one of the largest in the country, voted to reject a textbook supposedly on “sex education.” According to critics, the book was inappropriate for children because it included topics such as abortion and gender talk. Eventually, Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman changed her mind and the 5-4 vote approved the textbook.

El American contacted Commissioner Christine King’s office to inquire about the commission’s sudden change of heart and how it coincided with protesters leaving City Hall. According to a spokesperson, “no one waited for any activists to leave,” but it was “simply how the meeting schedule unfolded.”

But beyond whether a commissioner’s change of heart is legitimate, the manner in which the plan revision was approved and the subsequent vote further inflamed the proposal’s critics, of which there are not exactly few.

A media battle forged by the critics

A major political and media battle followed the plan’s approval. Virginia Key residents, paddlers, kayakers, bicyclists, environmental activists, homeless rights advocates, and entire families accustomed to visiting the Island’s downtown or its beautiful keys launched a strong protest against the commissioners who approved the proposal.

One of the main criticisms against the plan was the location of the island, far from any basic social service, which would imply a heavy expense not only in infrastructure but also in the maintenance of the relocated homeless. A plan that, due to the characteristics of the location, does not stipulate the social reintegration of the homeless.

“They’re going to be so far away from the services of the city of Miami, their ability to get jobs, to get back into society to climb the ladder to get a key to an apartment,” said Commissioner Ken Russel to CBS Miami, who voted against the proposal. Russel also pointed out that the idea of placing homeless individuals on the Island is an attempt at saving face: “It seems to be this is an entire effort to sweep the homeless under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Patrick Range II, President of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, also said the plan would jeopardize years of efforts to naturally reclaim the island, where families gather to play sports; enjoy the Keys; and even see endangered exotic animals, such as manatees.

“In my eyes, all of these things are in danger. Our environmental gems are in danger. Our historical legacy is in danger” Range II said. “Our efforts have been about providing a clean and safe recreational environment for people to come and enjoy the environmental and historic jewels that we have to offer.”

Commissioner King, in a statement sent to El American, assured that the proposal “is a good plan for the chronic homeless in our community. It will be a safe haven where we can provide direct social services on-site to those who need and want it the most.”

He also noted that “in order to approve the plan and begin the process now, we needed to select a location. To be clear, this is not the historic black beach or the open-air center. Those locations were never proposed. Anyone who says they were proposed is deliberately spreading misinformation.”

However, environmental advocates point out the chosen location is problematic, as it is a sensitive nature reservoir, and the proposed camp location is right next to “land that has already been identified for acquisition for conservation of environmentally sensitive lands through its EEL (Environmentally Endangered Lands) program,” according to a report by Local 10 News, outlining the environmental concerns of the proposed homeless relocation.


2/10/2015.- Black and white image of several sculptors specializing in sand castles working this Thursday, October 22, on a castle on the beach of Virginia Key (Florida) that they hope will be included in the Guinness list as the tallest sand castle in the world.(EFE)

“You can see manatees, you can hear the birds flying overhead,” said Virginia Key Outdoor Center owner Esther Alonso. “This is Miami. This is the heart of Miami. This is the soul of Miami.”

“The wildlife here has recovered, while in other parts of the state the manatee population is declining,” Alonso said. “Here it’s increasing, and it’s because of what we’re doing, which is not adding stress to the area.”

In fact, Commissioner King herself told Local 10 News that, if the plan affects Virginia Key’s fragile ecosystems, the relocation should be reconsidered.

“There’s nothing written in stone about the camps,” King told host Louis Aguirre. “Because we can’t destroy one thing to help another. It has to blend, it has to fit together well. And if it’s not environmentally friendly, it’s not a good fit, right?”

Other environmental experts have explained that populating the island abruptly, bringing dozens of people to live there, even if the infrastructure is small, will have an environmental impact. A clear example is in the sewage that will be formed from the creation of dozens of bathrooms and increased visits to them.

The other common doubt regards safety: how would the city ensure that Virginia Key is a safe environment for residents, tourists, and visitors?

Despite the many legitimate doubts, Commissioner Joe Carollo, the prime mover behind the proposal, dismissed critics by saying that most were just angry residents because they would now have homeless people living nearby. “These are the inhumane people. They want to throw them out on the street because they don’t want them in their neighborhoods,” the commissioner said.

El plan en Florida para reubicar 'homeless' en la histórica Virginia Key fracasó... por ahora

Joe Carollo, Miami Commisioner (EFE)

For weeks now, however, the Instagram account Virginia Key Outdoor Center, has shown many visitors unhappy with the plan and pushed a petition against the commission’s proposal that has already reached a hefty 15,000 signatures. The goal is 25,000.

El American contacted Commissioner Joe Carollo, but, at the time of publishing this story, there has been no response.

Virginia Key must be saved, but so must Miami from becoming San Francisco.

The numerous protests and questioning against the plan voted on by the commissioners were heard. First, Miami-Dade’s Democratic mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, sent a memo to the board explaining her concerns about the plan to move homeless people to Virginia Key.

In the document, she cites the various challenges to the project, which include “access to basic services, the safety and wellbeing of people experiencing homelessness whomight be relocated there, the historical significance of the site, infrastructure considerations,environmental concerns, and more.”

Finally, on August 9, City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez recommended the plan be put on hold, reaching an agreement with Commissioner Carollo to suspend the proposal for at least 6 months.

Virginia Key

The mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez (EFE)

On the suspension of the plan, which is an undoubtedly momentary failure of the proposal, center owner Esther Alonso said this was only a measure to placate the protests; and that in six months the plan could be reactivated, endangering Virginia Key.

“This is not over. This ‘pause’ was done to appease public outcry against this proposed plan. This project has not been put on pause. If you weren’t aware, in 6 months we will be losing the no vote. @KenRussellMiami will be leaving office as he is running for Congress,” read an Instagram post from the center.

It is possible that the pause is, as Alonso charges, to calm public outcry. However, it’s also possible that the commissioners listened to critics to find a more logical and comprehensive solution to a problem that may be existential for Miami.

One only has to watch videos showing the dystopian reality of the streets of San Francisco or Los Angeles to realize that the problem of homelessness must be addressed early before it is too late. Because then, when you least expect it, you have a group of people with no ability to reintegrate into society surviving on the streets, with legislators empowering and protecting them to live as they please without caring that they inconvenience the rest, and being the focus of crime, drugs and urban conflicts. A vicious circle impossible to repair not only implies the loss of public spaces but also damages the social fabric of cities.

To put into perspective, according to official data, there are 7,754 people who are homeless in San Francisco. Of those people, 3,357 are housed in a shelter. According to 2021 data from the Florida Department of Health, the Florida counties with the highest number of homeless are Miami-Dade, with 3,224 people; Broward, with 2,561; and Pinellas.

Statewide, Florida is the third state with more homeless people in the country, with 27,487, well behind California (161,582) and New York (91,271).

It is clear that Florida is not California and Miami is not San Francisco, New York City or Los Angeles; but that does not mean that the housing problem and the surge in homelessness should not be neglected.

And while the commission’s plan is paused, the Homeless Trust of Miami-Dade County is already proposing a plan that could supposedly get 400-550 people off the street in 18 months.

According to Ron Book, president of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, the plan put forward by the commission failed because “If you pick an incompatible location, you start with a problem.”

“That was the problem with the Virginia Key site. It was flawed,” said Book, who says he has locations selected for the proposal but declined to share them until they are purchased.

According to NBC Miami, Book mentioned that they would use existing buildings. Also, the Homeless Trust claims “that their plan would allow people to move in over the next year and a half, which would have a much bigger impact than the 50-100 homes proposed for Virginia Key.”

“The estimated price tag is about $45 million. Where that money will come from has not yet been decided. First, the city commissioners and mayor would have to agree, and then it would have to be approved by a vote,” reads the report.

But, for now, doubts are in the air: will the Homeless Trust plan prevail and improve the situation in Miami? Or will the city commission come up with a better, less controversial plan in a few months?

If none of these answers is yes, Miami will have a serious homeless problem to solve.

This is a developing story that may be updated as events unfold.

Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.

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