IN the past, police have rousted the homeless from public property, trying to keep them from sullying the city's image of palm trees, beaches, subtropical warmth and a colorful multiethnic mix.
But now a federal judge says the city must provide two "safe zones" where police cannot arrest the homeless for eating, bathing or sleeping in public view. US District Judge C. Clyde Atkins also ruled last week that police can't take or destroy homeless people's belongings.
The ruling on behalf of the city's estimated 6,000 homeless comes as the city's $10 billion tourist industry heads into its peak season.
It was good news for Martin Sanchez, a New Mexico native who lives in a row of plywood huts less than 100 yards from Biscayne Boulevard, site of the nationally televised Orange Bowl Classic parade. "I know this house isn't mine, but that's fine if the city wants to protect us," Sanchez said in Spanish.
Beneath elevated Interstate 395, a man who said he's known as "14 Carat" barely looked up when questioned as he rummaged through soggy trash.
"It's decent," he said. "Better future."
The ruling came in a 1988 class-action lawsuit that sharply criticized police for roundups of the homeless just before the 1988 Orange Bowl and the 1989 Super Bowl games. Police said they just enforced the law.
The judge's ruling in the suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, is criticized by some city officials who say it "institutionalizes" homelessness and by some homeless advocates who say their freedom shouldn't be restricted to two zones.
But to the executive director of Camillus House, a downtown shelter run by the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, the ruling ensures that the homeless won't be shoved out of public view and concern.
"The plight of the homeless - and their human needs - will be made so visible that action will have to be taken to resolve the problem," said Brother Paul Johnson.