“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” –Winston Churchill
I have followed the story of the homeless registrants in Miami since they were forced to live under the Julia Tuttle Bridge in 2007. Thanks to the “Lauren Book Child Safety Ordinance,” named after the daughter of a powerful South Florida lobbyist and passed in 2005, registrants cannot live within 2500 feet of places children congregate. Finding places for registrants in the county have proven problematic; for half a decade, registrants lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway (I-195) over Biscayne Bay connecting downtown Miami with the famous Miami Beach tourist area, surrounded by Miami’s richest and most famous. (The residents even referred to the camp as “Bookville” in “honor” of the lobbyist who influenced passage of the ordinance.) Once ousted from the JTC, the homeless population bounced to other communities, forced to move time and time again, from Shorecrest, to Allapattah, and as of 2016, an industrial park in Hialeah.
Despite following the story, I had never been to the camp until March 2016. I’m no stranger to homelessness, but what I saw at my brief initial visit to the camp (https://youtu.be/a0d_ZM2s3Lo) inspired me to return to the Miami camp for the holidays and spread some holiday cheer on behalf of our movement. Over the course of two months, I raised roughly $900 to bring much-needed supplies to the camp. The funds were used to purchase enough underwear, socks and laundry pods to make 200 care packages containing two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, and two laundry pods. We also brought hygiene products, used clothing and some camping supplies to the camp, and there was even money left over to make a few on-demand purchases.
Upon arrival in Miami on December 23rd, I was escorted by a longtime resident of the camp (who I’ll call Mr. T) to the campsite at the corner of 36th Court and 71st Avenue. It was just before sundown and there were only a few registrants there. Only about a dozen or so registrants stay at the camp all day long. Most registrants leave the camp during the day; many have loved ones they can visit and freshen up during the day, and return to the camp only when they are forced to by law, mostly between the hours of 10pm and 6am. After the 6pm sunset, Mr. T gave me a “grand tour” of the camp and explained how it worked. Since many registrants have vehicles, not everyone pitches a tent. Some pitch tents under the awnings of the nearby warehouses, while some pitch tents in the parking spaces. Only a handful of tents stay up all the time (Mr. T referred to it as “Tent City”). The industrial park is large enough to spread out the residents. A few registrants park in the more secluded areas of the industrial park. Another permanent tent with a large black tarp hides nearly out of view among the overgrown railroad path between a pair of warehouses.
Mr. T has a van he uses to drive to work, and another van that remains parked in his spot off the main strip, next to a warehouse that sells bulk used clothing to primarily Haitian immigrants. I pitched my own tent (a $25 tent from my local Cincinnati Wal-Mart store) by Mr. T’s second van, inflated my $10 air mattress, and spent a little more time conversing with other residents and observing the others pulling up to the camp to set up for the night. Among the other residents was an elderly man in a wheelchair, a man weighing in at nearly 400 pounds with severe arthritis, another man who had recent knee surgery, and even some women. Mr. T told me many at the camp do try to look out for each other. One of the older guys at the camp helped the man in the wheelchair perform tasks and gather donations that came to the camp. People try many things to keep their minds occupied but there was depression in the air. Some residents did express their depression to me.
At “tent city,” a grill sits partially exposed to the elements; food donations have started coming in daily from an unnamed ministry and are placed on top of the grill for those who are hungry. The food was good and was standard fare for those in the community of Hispanics and Haitians—black beans and rice, beefsteak strips in sauce, plantains, buttered rolls and salad. On Christmas Eve, three ministries came around offering food. My Christmas Eve plate was grilled chicken, plantains, black beans and rice, and some cookies. I even received a case of Fiji water to keep hydrated. Food conditions have improved in the months since my first visit to the camp, at least.
Having at least a weather-resistant tent is a necessity at the camp. During the evening, the cooling of the ocean creates clouds that promptly drop very brief but strong showers upon us. This is a problem for the generators and power cords as well, which are used to recharge the GPS batteries. A few individuals have TVs powered by the generators, while others receive much of their entertainment pleasures through smartphones.
Hygiene is still a primary issue at the camp. Those with vehicles can drive a mile or so to the nearest laundromat, but others use spigots from a couple of the warehouses to bathe or fill buckets for washing laundry. The humidity made me aware of my own uncleanliness as I adjusted from my cool Ohio weather to muggy air I normally only feel in July. There are a number of stores that are within walking distance of the camp (a Walmart NW of the camp, a Winn-Dixie and McDonald’s shopping center to the SW), but that is a moot point once curfew starts since the residents cannot travel to these places to relieve themselves. Thus, they must use buckets or toilet chairs and throw away the waste using bags.
It should be noted that people also drive by the camp to take pictures as if it was a tourist attraction. I’m unsure if it was because they were registrants or just homeless in general, but whatever the case, it righteously angers some of the camp members.
On Christmas Eve, Sloan44, veteran SOSEN member and representative of Woman Against Registry of Florida (WAR of FL) drove down from Tampa Bay to bring down the donations the fundraising efforts helped to purchase. The Florida registry site states that 250 registrants are registered within ¼ mile of 71st Ave/36th Ct, so we had bought enough socks and underwear for 250 people, searching every area store for socks and underwear bargains. In reality, the number at the campsite was about half that estimate, so we had plenty to go around. We filled as many bags as we could with two pairs of underwear and socks and two laundry pods a piece. We had also brought a number of random items, mainly clothing, hygiene products, and camping gear, and even a folding table. The Sloans assisted for a few hours to help stuff the bags before making the four-hour commute back to Tampa.
On Christmas Eve night, Mr. T and Felix (aka “Hollywood,” the nickname received from being on ARM’s prior Youtube video) helped me to pass out the donations. The largest sizes quickly evaporated, and both women at the camp also received donations. By the end of the evening, there were still roughly thirty bags left, even after allowing residents to come back for second helpings. Mr. T told me that not everyone took donations because they did have resources and thus didn’t want to take what they didn’t need. The ones who did were extremely thankful for the donations. I left the rest of the bags in Mr. T’s care, as he stated that new residents are brought to the camp by the DOC at any time, so at least some of them can get still receive socks and underwear after Christmas.
I walked around the camp after most fell asleep for the night. The temperature outside was perfect, stars hiding and reappearing behind passing clouds rising from the ocean, and the sound of the wind rustling through a row of coconut palms all created a sense of peace broken up only by the occasional car driving along the main strip. I slept peacefully in my tent that night, waking up the next morning (Christmas day) to the hot sun and gusts of wind determined to topple my temporary home.
After freshening up in the best way one could do without adequate shower facilities, Mr. T took me to a special place—the site of the old Julia Tuttle Causeway camp (aka “Bookville”). There is little evidence of the camp’s existence now—the area was cordoned off with “No Trespassing” signs and fences, the now famous messages “We R Not Monsters” and “They Treat Us Like Shit” were painted over, and trails were overrun with weeds. Some trash that was possibly the result of emptying out the camp cluttered the area under the bridge. Mr. T was a resident of the camp under the JTC, and gave me a tour of the campgrounds. (His sleeping area was along the narrow abutment just under the north face of the bridge.) Mr. T told me that he preferred the JTC camp to the Hialeah camp because the view was nicer and it was more peaceful. After gazing upon the waters of Biscayne and listening to the waves crashing against the beach along the island, I can understand Mr. T’s sentiment.
Conspicuous by his absence in this story is Ron Book, the man responsible for creating the law that in turn created the homeless problem. Book still runs the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, but unlike the time when the camp was under the JTC, Book never visits the current homeless camp. Many current residents never even heard of Ron Book, much less knowing his role in creating their camp. Those who donated to this fundraising drive provided more services than a local charity entrusted to help the homeless registrants!
In closing, there is one last important point worth mentioning. Those who are aware of our movement at the camp are grateful for our efforts to change the law, and they hold out hope that next year, there won’t even be a need to host another “Christmas at the camp.” They hold on to the hope that the 2500 foot restrictions are struck down by the courts once and for all. In the meantime, the camp will always be in need of clothing, hygiene products, and camping supplies. The Christmas donation drive may be over, but our efforts to help the camp are not over. To this end, we will continue to collect funds and necessities (hygiene products, clothing, and camping gear such as tents and air mattresses) for those at the camp. Monetary donations can be sent to Derek Logue, 8258 Monon Ave. #3, Cincinnati OH 45216 or Paypal at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we are working on setting up an address for packages to be sent to the Miami camp. I would like to extend many thanks to all who have donated to Christmas at the Camp, to Felix and Mr. T, and most of all, many thanks to Sloan44 and Women Against Registry of FL. If you are a Florida Resident, please support WAR of FL by donating and joining the cause (https://www.womenagainstregistry.org/Florida), as they have proven to be a group ready to get their hands dirty and work on the front lines. I could not have completed my mission without the assistance of WAR of FL.
I'll post a supplemental video soon containing pictures and a special message from the camp's residents.
Derek W. Logue, Reform Advocate