With a deeply controversial plan to erect a pilot homeless encampment on a remote barrier island in Miami on the ropes, its chief proponent is accusing opponents of “playing the race card” in an ugly new chapter in a local controversy gone haywire.
During a Monday afternoon press conference, Miami Mayor Frances Suarez announced the city’s intention to hold off on pursuing a pilot program to build dozens of “tiny homes” on Virginia Key for at least six months. The “transition zone” program moved forward in a 3-2 vote earlier this month and promptly spurred a furious outcry from every type of Miamian—from environmentalists worried about destroying the island’s ecosystem to advocates for the homeless concerned about the lack of infrastructure in the area off Rickenbacker Causeway to wealthy residents of nearby posh enclaves like Fisher Island.
But before it was the site of a tug-of-war between almost every constituency in Miami, Virginia Key was a Black beach at the height of Jim Crow-era segregation.
On Monday, backer City Commissioner Joe Carollo agreed to pause the pilot program while the city works with Miami-Dade County officials to update the plan. But the Republican wasted no time going after his critics. Calling opponents “elitists” who have strayed into ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY)-style rhetoric, Carollo accused some critics of playing the “race card” in light of Virginia Key’s racial history.
“What does this have to do with the historical Black beach?” Carollo said in response to a question at the press conference. “That’s a mile and a half away, the place that we’re looking at. It’s got nothing to do with the historical Black beach, and those that are using that as the final straw to throw at us, they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Carollo did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. But he was not alone in arguing opponents got cynical.
Christine King—the only Black commissioner in the 5-person elected body, who voted in favor of the Virginia Key plan—insisted in a statement to The Daily Beast that “she would never vote for any initiative that would compromise the use and enjoyment of our historic Black beach.”
“I am saddened by those who used the historic Black beach to make an argument against sheltering our chronically homeless on Virginia Key when it was clear that the historic Black beach was not a proposed site,” King added. “My vote to house chronically homeless on Virginia Key has thrust the issue of sheltering our homeless to the forefront of everyone’s attention. That is a welcomed unintended consequence.”
She added that her district “has shouldered the majority of our homeless population with little or no attention for years” and that she looks “forward to all of the advocates who have voiced their objections for a shelter on Virginia Key to share their ideas on how to solve the issue of sheltering our chronically homeless county-wide.”
But for David Peery, executive director and founder of the Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity, Carollo seems to be trying to “trivialize… the racial issues” in his plan to move homeless people to a flood-prone barrier island. Noting that a majority of homeless residents in Miami are Black, Perry slammed the idea of “dumping people” in an area that is miles away from the nearest grocery store.
“This plan inherently has some racial issues, and for someone to say that we are playing the race card when we are talking about the homeless is absurd,” Peery told The Daily Beast. “He fully knows the significance of Virginia Key Beach and the segregation that this place represents for Black residents in Miami.”
Peery noted that this is not the first time Carollo has spurred outrage amongst homeless advocates. Around the time he first proposed the encampment program last October, the city commissioner was also instrumental in the passage of a new ordinance to clear tent encampments, which resulted in an ongoing lawsuit against the city of Miami.
“This is all a distraction against the biggest problem: the whole plan is a racist plan,” he added.
Commissioner Ken Russell, who voted against the plan and was present at a Saturday protest in Virginia Key, claimed victory to The Daily Beast on Tuesday, arguing that “activism built pressure for the policymakers to seek another solution.
“I wouldn’t comment on another commissioner’s statement,” Russell added. “I am happy, however, that the program is not moving forward at this time.”