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Vice&virus: Miami doctor, brutalised by police while helping homeless, speaks about pandemic and poverty

Armen Henderson, an internal medicine physician at the University of Miami, was handcuffed by the police when he tried to supply tents to the homeless. In an interview with RTD, Dr Henderson talks about his practice, providing medical help to the needy, and how major sore points like social disparity and gun violence heighten at a time of crisis.

About the pandemic situation in Miami

We're not that overwhelmed in Miami yet. Numbers are increasing exponentially in Florida every day; people are projecting it to get worse later on. But, for now, it's not as bad as it is in places like New Orleans or New York. We're not overburdened yet. Honestly, my hospital has provided adequate protective equipment. And they've been pretty preemptive about trying to figure out what's the best way to go about the increased caseload. But we're a smaller private hospital as well, and we sit next to a large county hospital that takes care of more patients in general. But even there, they're not as much overwhelmed as you'll see in other places throughout the United States.

miami police closes beaches amid coronavirus pandemic
The Miami Police Department close the beaches in Miami-Dade County in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease in Miami, Florida. REUTERS/Maria Alejandra Cardona

You've seen the numbers across the United States, and the same is true for Miami. Poor people, working-class or both, black and immigrants, those who are detained, or in jail, and those who are experiencing homelessness throughout Miami-Dade County, these people are suffering at a greater rate than the rest of the population. If you're poor, you don't get access to adequate healthcare. And anytime you have any sort of crisis situation, it makes everything worse. We see similar things happen during hurricanes, which is our crisis in Miami every year. The pandemic is no different.

In the long run, for those who are unsheltered, there needs to be a contingency plan in place. The plan, that's adequate for all individuals, that works for people, even if they have serious mental illnesses or drug addiction problems and other things that cause chronic homelessness. People shouldn't be scrambling to pay for a hotel room. And it should be irrespective of what goes on in the economy. You really have to worry about people first, put people over profits. And when it comes to black people, in particular, people have to address the biases that they seriously have against black people. The federal government has to step up and enact laws that undo years of things like segregation, and redlining, and environmental racism — things that really perpetuate a lot of the problems that we see today.

About the Dream Defenders and community work

Dream Defenders existed before the pandemic; it started after the death of Trayvon Martin. Since then, the Defenders have been looking at police violence and the reasons why this violence occurs. We're looking at the gaps, where the government has failed individuals, specifically, people who are homeless or unsheltered living on the streets. Exposing those things and shaming people into doing the right thing is our initiative right now. We are also filling those gaps and providing mutual aid and showing what the governments should be doing. Hopefully, they pick up where we leave and start doing what they should be doing. When I moved here, I went to the organisation that I knew would have the best interests at hand for the individuals who live in the margins. That was the first-place reason for me for joining the organisation.

We have government solutions, and of course, they are normally inadequate. Then we rely on charity, on non-government organisations to pick up where the government has left off to kind of solve problems. And so it's left up to rich people who invest their tax dollars into this. It's a way to avoid taxes, but also to funnel your money and to control what type of response you want these organisations to have. These non-government organisations incite the government to step up and do it, in Miami-Dade County, specifically around homelessness. There is an organisation called the Homeless Trust, which is funded by tax dollars. They're tasked with basically finding temporary housing for those that are unsheltered.

miami charity organization after trayvon martin
We are active from June to November, our hurricane season. I run most of the medical aspect of the hurricane response and other community emergency operations centres. So, I just basically took over because it was a pandemic, it's more in the realm of what to do/Courtesy Armen Henderson

 They have no solution for these individuals who have chronic homelessness, people who live in extreme poverty, and alcoholism. What was done in the past is basically round them up and put them in jail during crises. They'd tell you all these people don't want to get off the street and it's so hard and blah-blah. We go to crisis situations every year. And so you would think, if you're funded a hundred million dollars to figure out what to do with this population, you would have a good plan. And in all honesty, we don't have a good plan. But in terms of resources, we were able to share and mobilise them. We apply for grants. We allow funds to become available faster.

There are about five to ten organisations who have dedicated a certain amount of resources towards crisis during hurricane season. This coalition of organisations is called the Community Emergency Operation Center. We already had a contingency plan in place. We already had a list of individuals we knew that we served. We immediately got them on the phone, educating them about what was going on, pointing them in their resources that they may not have heard about. We had a team on the phone, and we also had a street team. We were able to respond faster than other organisations throughout the United States have been able to.

About gun violence in Miami

Miami is one of the places where people in the military train for the army before they are shipped off to war. They come to our trauma centre in the hospital, because they see the same type of gunshot wounds in these neighbourhoods as they would in war: gunshots from police, gunshot wounds from individuals living in the neighbourhood. It has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the economy. When people don't have anything to look forward to. There are high rates of unemployment there, too. That's basically what happens in every major city across the United States. We don't get any mental health training, which also perpetuates the violence. If you haven't healed from seeing somebody get shot, you're more likely to perpetuate violence. In Miami, in particular, gun violence is so high also because it's so hot all the time. There's a direct correlation between the amount of violence and in a neighbourhood or a city and the temperature.

About hurricane training

Because of the high number of gun activity in the neighbourhood and military training, local people would also say 'I want to know how to bandage a gunshot wound. I want to know how to approach a gunshot victim'. So it started with gunshot wounds and then it moved to crises. In 2017, we had Hurricane Irma that just brushed our shoreline, and it caused mass devastation in the neighbourhood. In the same neighbourhoods that I'm mentioning, with high poverty, high rates of crime etc., the electricity didn't come on for weeks as opposed to other neighbourhoods that were more or less okay. How people were prioritised to get their electricity, it seemed as though it was based on your income. If you lived in a higher income neighbourhood, your electricity came on faster.

hurricane irma in miami florida
A truck is seen turned over as Hurricane Irma passes south Florida, in Miami, U.S. September 10, 2017/ REUTERS by Carlos Barria

And because of that, people in the same poor neighbourhoods were the last to get resources. And not only just to get their electricity turned back on, but also water, access to food. On the ground, we had to go around and feed 30,000 individuals.

Because of that, we created our own response to the crisis. Since then, we've been responding to neighbourhoods in crisis, specifically during hurricane season to provide access to medical care and social work, to protect from evictions. When the pandemic showed up at our doorstep, we knew what it was going to be government neglect. That's why we were able to respond so fast. Today we've provided people with tents; we're providing food.

About working with the homeless

We know their stories, we get their stories. There's a large subset of people who are homeless because they just can't afford the rent. These individuals may work. It's not uncommon to meet somebody who works 40 hours a week but still lives on the street.
I think I saw a sign in New York City that said that 30,000 people are homeless on the street and there are also 30,000 vacant apartments. When housing is a commodity and not a human right, then people live out on the street. You would think that individuals who live on the street, make bad decisions or may have serious mental illnesses or problems with drug addiction. But when you go and talk to people who live in shelters, who live in their cars, you know, — all these individuals have the same story, 'I work. I can't afford the rent here'. The minimum wage in Miami-Dade County is about eight dollars (an hour) when the cost of living here is like fifteen to twenty dollars for an individual.

It's in the interest of rich people to now purchase this land, not only because of its value but also because it's the highest elevation in Miami. Miami is going to climate change and sea-level rise. The developers are projecting that the area that people normally live in is going to be flooded in 30 years. So, they come into the land where black people live. The highest elevation in Miami is Liberty City. And this is the land where most of the black people in Miami can live. So in crisis, what you also have is that people use that time to evict people. Hotel owners or apartment owners sell that property on this land for an insane amount. That's another reason why people become homeless, particularly in Miami-Dade County. We have to create legal counsel to make sure that people are not taken advantage of.

testing the homeless for coronavirus
If the person is not symptomatic at all, but, as we are the epicentre of the virus and they are the most vulnerable population, we will test them on the spot/Courtesy Armen Henderson

We don't have access to a lot of tests. If we identify somebody on the street that is really sick and somebody who we think should be in the hospital, we call the ambulance. If there's someone who may have symptoms of the virus but is not sick enough to go to the hospital, we may drive them to get tested at the nearby hospital. If someone is positive that we test on the street, then we find housing for them. At that point, we can trust the organisation that is supposed to be doing this job, testing, finding positive individuals. We'll call them and say, 'look, you've got a person that's positive on the street'. And, because of the relationship they have with the Department of Health, they are to provide housing for individuals. That's basically what we do. But we're not interested in just those that are positive. Some people are immunocompromised; they're also elderly people over the age of 65 that are living on the street. There are also people who are disabled, those that depend on machines to breathe; We believe that especially in a crisis, we should be able to provide housing for these individuals.

About police brutality

What we've seen is that police departments are breaking people's turf down, slicing people's tents. They're getting rid of people's belongings. And it's inhumane. You are not providing enough housing for all individuals on the street, but now you also cut people's tents down. One of the reasons why they don't want people to put up tents is because it's unsightly. We're a visitor city; people come from all around the world to visit us. The government doesn't want to have poverty all up in people's faces. There was a law created that was made active in 2018 that said that police could not harass homeless individuals. But until now, the law wasn't activated by the federal judge. Still, it is inhumane for people to do such a thing, and it's against CDC guidelines for them to do it. They still do.

The other thing that's going on is that police are accosting homeless and poor people, but they also harass black people in general. What happened at my house, I was in the car, and the police officer decided that was a reason not just to pull up, but to get out of the car and put me in handcuffs and yell in my face without a mask on during a pandemic. And I think I just see the fact that even if it is a crisis, the police don't care. You know, it's business as usual. This could've happened in any other time; it's just the way police are, you see these situations escalate into black people being shot. I think, to people, it seems that we exaggerate what happens between police and black people. But we do not. It happens every day. I could have ended up shot if I had let the situation escalate into something more. It just speaks to the fact that police are still going to harass poor people irrespective of whether or not it's a pandemic.

There's a citizen's review board which looks at the police misconduct. But one of the reasons why these things exist and they're allowed to exist in our country is because no one really holds the police accountable. When the citizen report comes together, and they say, 'Ok, this individual did something wrong'. The police investigate it themselves, and if they feel no action should be taken against the police officer, they don't have to take it. Not only do they not have to take it. Let's say you sue the police department for a civil suit saying that they violated the right because they shot you. Who pays for that? That's why if they're policing themselves and no one's holding them accountable, then they just can go ahead and do whatever they like. And that's what they do.

About being a doctor

I understand what you're asking, and I'm saying that health care medicine is connected to the problems that I'm addressing. There's something called the social determinants of health — it's where you live, where you work, how much you get paid for your skills. Whether or not you live in a neighbourhood that was built on top of a landfill or you live next to a factory that spills waste, it causes your health to be bad. Whether or not you live in a place that's always under crisis or you live in a place that has high rates of police violence or violence in general, or if you live in a place that has high unemployment rates, — all these things coalesce into whether you live or die. These things are our indicator of life expectancy in America.

miami doctor helping the homeless amid coronavirus
If it's my job as a physician is to keep people alive, then I have to be worried about these other things for my patients, particularly those who are poor and those who are black or immigrant, or minority. Healthcare is like 20 per cent; the other 80 per cent has to do with all those other factors/Courtesy Armen Henderson

 Before I became a doctor, I was living in Philadelphia. I grew up in a similar neighbourhood as the one that I serve in. The inaction of the government and racism etc. lead to decreased life expectancy. People live less. In one neighbourhood of Miami, for example, the life expectancy is 15 years less than in that two miles away. I was living in a neighbourhood in Philadelphia where life expectancy was 10-15 years less than another neighbourhood that was more wealthy, where people pay more taxes, where people got paid more. I experienced some of the things that homeless people experience, not having food to eat, not having the lights on. Recently, my brother has gone through homelessness, my dad, too. So these are things that affected me on a personal level. Normally, people think about the glitz and the glamour of Miami, the mansions and the partying, the nightlife scene. But they skip over what happens on the mainland.

The fact that now physicians have become employees. About 30 years ago, you could graduate medical school and residency, and finish your training and then open up a practice. Be an employer yourself, a small business. But now, with the corporatisation of medicine, with capitalism in healthcare, you have large corporations who own hospitals, who then employ physicians. Physicians have gone from employers to employees. You lose your voice, you lose your autonomy, and the corporation tells you when to get up. They tell you to shut up when you don't have enough equipment to do your job, and they can fire you. If you're a physician, if you're under the age of 45, you won't become a millionaire anymore.

activists test the homeless for coronavirus
Dream Defenders at work/Courtesy Armen Henderson

I'm not different from a McDonald's employee. Of course, I get paid more than the McDonald's employee; it's about having a voice, about having autonomy over your life, etc. You come out of medical school with four or five hundred thousand loans. You've got to work for a corporation to pay off those loans. Now physicians are talking about unionising and figuring out the best way to get their voices heard and fighting back against the system of healthcare in general. I would have liked to have my own practice someday. The reason why I got into medicine was for autonomy. But it's not on the table anymore.

I grew up in poverty. I come out with five hundred thousand dollars in loans from medical school. You've got to pay for college, which is already overpriced. And then you've got to pay for medical school, which is equally overpriced. You don't get any loan assistance. We have our education secretary who is denying people reimbursement for their loans. If you want to get a house and live a comfortable life, it's against your interests to spend a half a million dollars on starting a practice that you know is not going to do well because you're in competition with hospitals across the country. It has to change ultimately. Inevitably, you know, we'll go to a single-payer system that is less complicated, that doesn't involve all these insurance policies, and it just provides ways in which people can make money off of it. In my opinion, healthcare has to be a human right if you want people to live long. People think that it's the physician who is charging a nominal fee and that's why the services cost so much. But the reality is, really it's the hospital.

About family

I have a wife and two kids; we live here in Miami together. I just try to balance it the best way that I can. My work, in general, is at night and I work from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. For example, I got off this morning at 7:00 a.m., and I have to sacrifice sleep because when I come home, I do stuff in the community and I spend the rest of my time with my family.

miami docrot henderson helps the homeless
Doctor Henderson with family/Courtesy Armen Henderson

So, what really gets lost is the amount of sleep. When I'm at home, I still clean, I still watch the kids, you know, our school is out right now. It is going fine for us because first off my wife has a background in education. She was about to start working, but she decided that she's just going to stay home and homeschool.

So, homeschooling is going fine so far. My daughter is fine — my wife pretty much takes it over, and I take care of our one-year-old son and clean up. You know, I'm just trying to do it all at the same time.