Homeless moving to Virginia Key? Plan is controversial to say the least

A pilot program aimed at building a community on Virginia Key for the city of Miami’s homeless population is causing a stir.

City commissioner Alex de la Portilla who first voted against the City of Miami Human Services Department Transformation and Transition Zone report flipped his vote at the last minute and helped it to pass.

We spoke to several community stakeholders from those who take families and children on eco-tours on Virginia Key to an expert in the field of homeless outreach. Everyone said they have plenty of questions ranging from services to security.

Adrian Mesa is a psychiatric nurse practitioner with experience and a lot of questions about the city’s plan to build 50 to 100 tiny homes for the homeless on Virginia Key. Mesa formerly worked as a Camillus House psychiatric nurse practitioner and has experience working to assist the chronically homeless population. In 2015, Christina Vazquez met with Mesa and a team of outreach workers.

“If someone is withdrawing from drugs and alcohol is there going to be support? What kind of supportive treatment is going to be offered?” Mesa wondered.

Miami commissioner Ken Russell rejects not just the proposed location but the overall idea of isolating a vulnerable population.

“What you are going to have is homeless individuals who get dropped here by the dozen who are just wandering around Virginia Key with no services and no future,” Russell said.

Miami commissioner Joe Carollo who suggested the idea that won approval in a 3-2 vote said they will bring trailers to the site to offer services.

“I don’t know on the average how long people will be here for – whether it’s a day or two days or more but at least we’re helping them from a situation that’s deplorable on the streets,” he said.

He said trailers will offer services and he said there will be security.

The proposed site is flanked by biking trails popular with families that Bernard “Frenchie” Riviére designed and built with the help of volunteers.

“Most other cities would love to build parks. Our city has a park and they want to build buildings to put people who live under bridges,” Riviére said.

Esther Alonso is worried for her staff. She runs Virginia Key Outdoor Center which offers eco-adventures to locals, children, and visitors. The homeless encampment, she said, creates a public safety concern and she worries about potential environmental impacts.

“There are habitat concerns. This is an area in recovery,” Alonso said.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who voted against the proposal, said he was surprised by his colleagues who voted for the proposal because they haven’t seen a full economic impact analysis.

Carollo said his staff is creating a report that includes an economic analysis of not just the Virginia Key site, but other proposed sites. That report is expected to go before the city commission in September.

A spokesman for the Homeless Trust told Local 10 News that the community had the lowest homeless numbers in 25 years in 2021 and that, at last count, it is still among the lowest in the 28-year history of the Trust. The next census is scheduled for August.

“We always welcome the opportunity to work with our partners at the City and I appreciate their leadership in making this a housing proposal,” said Ron Book, Homeless Trust Chairman.

Local 10 News queried the City of Miami Police Department on how they planned to patrol the proposed area.

Local 10 News: “How will police work to keep families, children, and tourists who utilize this same space safe?”

MPD: “The City of Miami Police Department has always been committed to serving the community to the highest standards. We have a sufficient amount of police officers who patrol the streets of Miami around the clock in order to deter crime and respond to calls for service and as well as those that require immediate attention.”

Local 10 News: “How will police be working to address the multitude of outreach services and resources the vulnerable population per resources and subject matter experts state is required?”

MPD: “The City of Miami Police Department has its own program (H.E.A.T) Homeless Empowerment Assistance Team geared toward addressing homelessness and issues surrounding the vulnerable population. Additional officers including those who work proactively in assigned neighborhood areas to address commonly reported issues are always available to provide additional assistance when needed.”

(See the proposal below)

Historic Virginia Key

Patrick Range, the chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust says that the Trust was not contacted in advance nor were they consulted about the Transformation and Transition Zone proposal and that there are other “more appropriate locations” to provide the services.

Range issued a statement that, in part said, “Virginia Key is the home to the Historic Miami Marine Stadium and Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, a Cultural and Environmental gem; both sites are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Historic Beach Park is governed by a community trust and approved master plan. For two decades the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust has worked to transform the 82-acre Historic Beach Park from an abandoned beach, full of history, to paradise renewed on Virginia Key. The park reopened in 2008, the community and Virginia Key stakeholders developed a master plan for the island in 2010. “

He continued: “It’s very disappointing that the City of Miami Commission would move a discussion item of this magnitude and importance into an action item without consulting the Trust and other stakeholders. I’m sure the communities that neighbor Virginia Key and the thousands of families and tourists that visit the island daily would believe there are other more appropriate locations in the City of Miami to provide transitional services for Miami’s homeless population. “

Virginia Key Beach became a cherished getaway, social gathering place, and even a sacred site for religious services for those who were not allowed to swim at “whites only” beaches.

There is plenty of historical significance, too, in Virginia Key. It became known as the first “colored only” beach in Miami during the Jim Crow era.

By 1920, according to Virginia Beach Park archives, Miami’s beaches were public swimming facilities exclusively for the white population. There were, unofficial exceptions, and one of those was a special beach located on Virginia Key known as “Bears Cut.”

Tourist brochure for Virginia Beach, circa 1960. During segregation, Virginia Beach was used by African Americans for beach and waterfront activities. From 1945 through the 1960s it was legally designated for “colored only”. Closed in 1982, the property was placed under the management of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust which oversaw the renovation and reopening of the park to the public in 2008.

The archives state that: “The property became an official ‘colored only’ recreation site as a direct response to a bold protest, led by the late Judge Thomas. Under Thomas’ leadership, black men defiantly entered the water with the intention of being arrested at exclusively white Baker’s Haulover Beach in North Dade County.”

The master site plan developed by the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.

It continued: “To avoid costly embarrassment county authorities took no legal action against the protesters. Instead, they acquiesced to the protesters’ demands for an officially designated swimming area for African Americans. Although only accessible by boat from a downtown dock on the Miami River, ‘Virginia Beach, a Dade County Park for the exclusive use of Negroes,’ was opened on August 1, 1945.”

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