Disturbing Virginia Key Plan Reflects Wave of Anti-Homeless Radicalism

    Miami-Dade County, Florida, was long seen as liberal. But Biden only just beat Trump there in 2020, and the local Republican party has since been infiltrated by the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group. The county is also a hotbed for the death penalty, a practice condemned by most of the globe. After Darren Rainey, a Black man with schizophrenia, was tortured to death by local prison guards in 2012, its elected prosecutor, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, shrugged it off without bringing charges.

    Miami’s approach to housing lines up with some of these characteristics. One of its most prominent figures when it comes to the issue of homelessness, lobbyist and advocate Ron Book, forced local residents listed on the state sex offender registry out of their homes in droves to live under a bridge. Stable housing is not only a basic human right, but a crucial element for people seeking to rebuild their lives, without committing further crimes, after release from prison.

    Commissioner Joe Carollo, a former Miami mayor, has long made displacing the unhoused population one of his signature issues. Last year, he reportedly yelled at community members in a meeting when they reacted poorly to his “adopt-a-homeless” plan, which simply entailed the government asking homelessness advocates to allow unhoused people to move in with them.

    Carollo identified Virginia Key, an island on the sparsely populated outskirts, as the “optimal location” to shelter up to 100 “chronically homeless” people in “tiny homes.

    Carollo introduced his Transformation & Transition Zone plan last month, claiming that “It’s not going to be the Ritz-Carlton, but it’s going to be a heck of a lot better than being in the streets where you’re not safe.”

    Carollo identified Virginia Key, an island on the sparsely populated outskirts of the city, as the “optimal location” to shelter up to 100 “chronically homeless” people in “tiny homes.” In a powerpoint prepared by his office, several “important considerations” were described as favoring the Key, such as its “secluded location,” and the facts that it is “not close to residential buildings” and there are “no plans for development.”

    His plan also envisions the creation of support services “on site,” rather than enabling residents to seek out—and, potentially, to reject—those services within the broader community. This point has been obscured for even existing residents of the Key, such as Jack McEntire, who complained that the Zone’s residents “would have to walk like three miles to get to the bus stop to go anywhere.”

    After the Miami City Commission’s approval of his plan, Carollo has gotten more public about the fact that the point is that they won’t go anywhere; they will stay put on the island in isolation, where he said “[w]e’re going to be bringing them to their individual shelter tiny homes where they’re going to have all the service that they require.”

    The Virginia Key proposal was originally narrowly rejected by the Commission, but for reasons unclear, the matter was revived and then passed in late July.

    In some ways, Carollo’s vision matches an uptick in anti-homeless radicalism seen elsewhere in the country—especially in California, where people of all political stripes scapegoating unhoused people is a tradition as old as the state itself. Just this year, California gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger ran on the creation of a new state agency called “Cal-Psych,” which would have an apparatus of asylums for “addicts” and people with mental illness, with the threat of jail for non-compliance.

    An unnamed “monitoring entity” on the Key would be tasked with enforcing “‘ZERO’ tolerance” for drugs and drinking.

    While Carollo’s plan apparently foresees the admission of people on an “voluntary” basis, an unnamed “monitoring entity” on the Key would be tasked with enforcing “‘ZERO’ tolerance” for drugs and drinking. In all likelihood, that means arrests and jail. Homelessness advocates want nothing to do with the plan.

    Ron Book also documented his opposition. Based on his statements, however, his chief concern was that the plan could risk the loss of $41 million a year in local governmental funding.

    “The [Miami-Dade County Homeless] Trust cannot support or fund any homeless encampment without jeopardizing our programs and funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Book said, in his role as the trust’s chairman.

    Commissioner Ken Russell, whose jurisdiction includes the Key, opposed the plan for different reasons, stating, “We have an incredible support system of partners that need our continued investment. Building our own tent city to criminalize homelessness and put them on an island is not the solution for their future or our city.”

    In what appears to be a thinly veiled attack against residents and politicians of the Key, Carollo suggested in the press that the Zone is a humanitarian project, and that the problem is that “no one wants it in their neighborhood.” He also said that the Zone cannot be compared to some of America’s ugliest experiments in incarceration, stating, “This is no Alcatraz, no Devil’s Island. … You can walk toward the north end and there is the most expensive Zip code in America, Fisher Island.”

    Some commentators, however, have referred to the Zone as a concentration camp. At the commissioner meeting, one advocate said, “”We’re looking at the situation with Virginia Key, you’re looking at another Hitler, Auschwitz, putting us in a concentration camp. We are human beings and not animals.”

    Such comparisons will be deeply controversial in a metro area with a large and prosperous Jewish community, even if it’s true that Nazi concentration camps did not start out as sites of systematic mass murder, but as places where people the regime hated were siloed for forced labor in terrible conditions.

    Political persecution is not limited to the worst authoritarian regimes. People experiencing homelessness, especially those whom the US government claims to be “service resistant,” could certainly be thought of as a group subject to political persecution.

    The Miami-Dade plan is a dangerous expansion of the Overton window.

    Receiving any kind of help often means having to play by the rules of the politically powerful in a deeply capitalistic society. People often have to stop using drugs, which they may use to self-medicate for trauma or pain. And when people are often treated by service providers as “more like children than adults,” they must debase themselves, essentially conceding the point of their oppressors that their agency is irrelevant. Work, of whatever kind, and whatever the person’s life circumstances, is often a precondition. As the US Interagency Council on Homelessness starkly advertises, the governmental end goal for homelessness is “employment first,” not necessarily stable housing.

    The Miami-Dade plan is a dangerous expansion of the Overton window. It will deport unhoused people to an island, removed from the social services of the county’s urban core. It provides a fear-based deterrent, telling potential non-workers that they will have their rights and agency taken away if they do not comply with the predominant economic system. Simultaneously, it addresses the sad fact that many wealthy people do not want to see unhoused people; many think they are fundamentally dangerous.

    That attitude was a calling card of the venture capital-backed recall campaign of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was thrown up on posters depicting him as a dictator. What was Boudin’s big sin, according to his opponents? Not locking up all the housed people in places where they are out of sight and out of mind.

    Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

    When it was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, its authors might have been appalled to learn that the country that largely instigated it—Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee—would be finding new ways to violate it three-quarters of a century later.



    Photograph of Virginia Key by UM Rosenstiel School via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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