Miami removes homeless from streets as Irma nears

As the window started to close for evacuating Florida before Hurricane Irma arrived, police and social workers took to the streets of Miami in search of the city's estimated 1,100 homeless people.

Their goal: Convince the homeless to willingly enter a storm shelter -- or let them know they can be held against their will for a mental health evaluation.   

An Associated Press team tagged along with officials and a psychiatrist as they searched on Friday for people sleeping in waterfront parks, in the path of the potentially catastrophic storm.

"We're going out and every single homeless person who is unwilling to come off the street, we are likely going to involuntarily 'Baker Act' them," Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust told AP.

The Baker Act is the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, a state law that allows officials to institutionalize patients for 72 hours if they pose a danger to themselves or others. Beyond 72 hours, the state needs to obtain a court order to prolong their detention.

The law is named for Maxine Baker, a former state representative who worked on mental health issues.

As of late Friday afternoon, officers had detained at least six people.

This is the first time the law has been used in preparation for a hurricane, officials said. Book said invoking the law was preferable to risking deaths on the streets.

"I am not going to sign suicide notes for people who are homeless in my community. I am just not going to do it," Book told AP. "That's why you have a Baker Act. It's there to protect those who can't otherwise protect themselves."

On Friday, officials were able to convince about 70 people to willingly come to the shelters. However, 600 people were thought to remain outside, unprotected against the storm, which prompted the evacuations of more than 5.6 million people.

Ron Honberg, a senior policy adviser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said there is always a risk that the Baker Act will be used in violation of people's civil rights, but he said this storm seemed to justify invoking it.

"I think sometimes situations arise that are so dire that safety consideration supersedes everything else," he said. "But you don't want this to be used on people who don't have a mental illness."

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said people need to be encouraged to take shelter during a disaster, but doesn’t believe you can force people by manipulating mental health laws.

"This is a democracy, and you can't force people to seek shelter if they don't want to," Howard Simon told AP. "I don't think you can manipulate the mental health laws by assuming that anyone who is homeless and doesn't seek shelter is mentally ill."

The Homeless Trust said it would continue its search for stragglers until winds reach 45 mph, probably by Saturday afternoon. They have already driven more than 400 people to shelters.

"I am not happy to have to do it," said Steven Nolan, whose face has weathered many days of Florida sunshine. "But I'd rather be in there than out here when the storm hits."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.