MIAMI ― As Hurricane Irma rapidly approached Florida’s southern coast, Ron Book, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, and the Miami-Dade Police Department made an unprecedented decision: They chose to detain homeless people ― some against their will ― to protect them from the storm.
The Baker Act ― the informal name given to Florida’s Mental Health Act of 1971 ― allows police and government officials to involuntarily detain individuals who may have a mental illness or could pose a significant threat to themselves or others. The law requires “clear and convincing evidence” that individuals detained under it are in danger.
It is rarely used, in part because of the legal and constitutional concerns it raises, and Miami had never before invoked it ahead of a hurricane. But Irma was different. Forecasters warned that it was the most powerful hurricane to ever form in the Atlantic Ocean, and it carried the potential to devastate the Miami coast. Book, who has led the homeless trust for more than a decade, felt he had no choice.
“I’m not going to be like Houston’s mayor, telling people to write their Social Security numbers on their arms with a Sharpie,” Book told HuffPost on Monday, after the worst of Irma had passed through Miami. “My responsibility is to do everything I can to save the lives of the people we’re charged with getting off the streets.”
Miami-Dade police ultimately used the Baker Act to arrest six people in the days before Irma began to batter the south Florida coast Saturday night and into Sunday morning, Book told HuffPost. Twelve others, he said, were in handcuffs before ultimately agreeing to go willingly to one of the 42 shelters the county had opened to house Irma evacuees.
That Miami invoked the Baker Act is a sign of how desperate the situation felt as Irma approached, and how far the city and its officials were willing to go in an effort to protect Miami’s homeless population from Irma’s wrath. But that it needed to be used may also point to a need to review how states and cities help their homeless residents ahead of natural disasters like Hurricane Irma.
The Homeless Trust assisted police in seeking out homeless individuals through Friday night, Book said. Even after that, Miami-Dade police continued to sweep the streets until Sunday afternoon, when the county pulled…