“City of Peasant Living”: South Miami Sign Vandalized After Panhandling Law Passes

The welcome sign at the entrance to the City of South Miami touts the Miami-Dade suburb as “The City of Pleasant Living.” But in a recent instance of either cosmic iron or cynical vandalism shared on social media by Islandia Journal publisher Jason Katz, the letter L on the sign has gone missing, and the municipality’s motto now reads: “The City of Peasant Living.”

According to Sally Philips, South Miami’s mayor, the unfortunate typo is believed to be an act of vandalism that the city is already working to correct. While Philips can acknowledge the vandals’ ingenuity, she doesn’t find the current phrase to be funny or accurate.

“I don’t find it particularly humorous, but it was clever,” Philips tells New Timees. “What a difference that one letter makes.”

She has a point: The small suburb of about 12,000 residents isn’t exactly known for its “peasant living.” to US Census data, South Miami’s median household income of $66,769 is well above the county’s overall median of $53,975, and its according poverty rate of 12 percent is well below the county’s rate of 15 percent.

That said, Philips theorizes that the vandalization might be linked to the city’s houseless population and a recent ordinance that criminalizes panhandling.

“Every city has homelessness and panhandling,” Philips notes.

“Camping” on public property is already prohibited in South Miami. But on April 5, commissioners voted unanimously to pass a resolution restricting panhandling by prohibiting people from soliciting others for money, goods, or services while on public transportation, at a bus stop, at an ATM, or at someone’s car window when they’ve stopped at a traffic light. Anyone found guilty of panhandling can be fined up to $200 and face up to 30 days in jail, and if they’re found to be panhandling “aggressively,” the fine can reach as much as $500 and the jail time increases to a maximum of 60 days.

“One way to stop panhandling is to stop giving people money, but you can’t arrest people for giving money,” Philips says. “However, you can tell panhandlers to not be aggressive.”

While Philips is proud of the commission’s work to address homelessness in the city, homeless advocates like attorney Dante Trevisani, who grew up in South Miami, call these resolutions “anti-homeless laws,” and argue that they do little to prevent or solve the issues that cause houseless folks to ask for money or sleep on benches.

“Like many cities, their people are complaining about homeless people being around businesses in the downtown area,” says Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, a nonprofit advocacy law firm. “The step that they take is criminalization, but that’s wrong on many fronts, and it’s ineffective. It doesn’t do anything to treat the root causes of homelessness.”

Trevisani says similar anti-panhandling and anti-camping legislation has been overturned for violating First Amendment rights to free speech and Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. South Miami’s ordinances, he adds, read almost identically to a similar ordinance passed by the City of Fort Lauderdale, which was struck down by a federal judge last June Fort Lauderdale was ordered to repeal the ordinance and pay damages to several houseless people who’d sued.

It’s not just that these laws are unconstitutional, Trevisani explains. By criminalizing homelessness, the laws further traumatize some of the city’s most disenfranchised residents.

“People end up back on the street worse off because now they have a criminal record, fines, and fees to deal with, and the trauma of being in jail,” the attorney says. “For people with nowhere to live, this criminalizes their very existence.”

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