Hurricane Irma: A Chance to Lock up the Homeless in Miami

You know how many people pull together in a natural disaster, treating each other with more kindness and pitching in to help? While hunkering down here in the path of the hurricane that has devastated parts of Florida, I’ve seen many people lending a hand to help strangers. It’s been very heartwarming.

But I’ve also seen a darker side here in Florida. Some officials have discovered that Hurricane Irma is a different kind of opportunity — to clear the homeless from the streets of Miami. Police, working in conjunction with an activist group and a handful of mental health professionals, gave homeless individuals what seems like a simple choice: either go to a shelter or get sent for a psychiatric evaluation against their will.

This is a flagrant violation of a person’s individual liberties, twisting a law meant to protect people with a mental illness. The law was not crafted to make people do all manner of things against their will.

We knew ahead of landfall that Hurricane Irma would be a disaster for the state. Hurricanes of this magnitude usually cause a lot of property destruction, but very few deaths. When the storm skated across the Caribbean, it caused fewer than two dozen deaths. In comparison, a monsoon in India just a few weeks ago caused more than 1,200 deaths, but barely made news here in the U.S.

It’s this specter of seemingly-preventable death that is apparently motivating the police and certain mental health professionals in Miami to take action. As in most U.S. states, Florida has a law (called the Baker Act) that allows law enforcement to detain an individual for up to 72 hours for a psychiatric evaluation when officials feel that person is in imminent danger of causing harm to themselves or others.

The law was twisted in a well-meaning but misguided attempt to help people who are homeless.

Here’s one chilling exchange documented by the Associated Press:

One older man pushing his belongings in an empty wheelchair in Bayfront Park tried to wave them off.

“I don’t want nothing,” he said, insulting a social worker.

“So you are cool with dying in the streets?” he asked.

“Get out of my goddamn face,” he responded.

“What’s your name?” asked Dr. Mohammad Nisar, a psychiatrist who was looking for evidence of mental illness, a necessary factor for a Baker Act detention.

“None of your damn business!”

Police officer James Bernat intervened.

“We are here to help you. Listen to me. You are being very aggressive. We are trying to help you,” Bernat said. “It’s very dangerous out here.”

“You are trying to make me go somewhere I don’t want to go,” he insisted.

Finally, the man was handcuffed without a struggle and taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation.

What was the clear sign of mental illness? Someone who didn’t want to go to an overcrowded shelter, who may have had bad experiences at similar shelters in the past?

Isn’t it possibly more traumatic to ask people to go somewhere they don’t want to go — a shelter or strange hospital (where they may end up being strapped to a gurney in a hallway, due to overcrowding and room shortages)?

In short, it appears that a psychiatrist is simply rubber-stamping the Baker Act order to get the homeless inside some place. This mental health professional is using their power in a way the law never foresaw nor intended. The only criteria here is that a person is “homeless” and looks like he or she is homeless.

Think about it… If you’re an otherwise law-abiding citizen just walking down the street, law enforcement officials could just as well do this to you. The ACLU makes clear why twisting the law in this manner is a very bad thing:

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said people need to be encouraged to take shelter during a disaster, within limits.

“But this is a democracy, and you can’t force people to seek shelter if they don’t want to,” Howard Simon said. “I don’t think you can manipulate the mental health laws by assuming that anyone who is homeless and doesn’t seek shelter is mentally ill.”

Yet that’s exactly what they did in Florida. Trusted professionals in law enforcement and mental health took the laws and simply twisted them for “emergency” purposes, just because they decided it is in other people’s best interests that they do so.

And that’s a very chilling proposition, for all Americans.

For further information

Read the full AP story: For Miami’s homeless, a choice: Take shelter or be held