Miami’s Camillus House opens gleaming new homeless shelter to complete an $80 million expansion

More than 50 years ago, the Catholic order of the Brothers of the Good Shepherd opened a makeshift shelter in an old building on the fringes of downtown Miami to serve a growing population of — in the day’s dismissive parlance — skid-row bums.

What a difference half a century makes.

On Thursday, Camillus House inaugurated a gleaming new shelter and medical building, the last major piece in a decades-in-the-making plan to expand into an ambitiously conceived campus that’s now essentially complete. The new $80 million campus, wedged between Interstate 95 and the Jackson Memorial Hospital medical center, is designed to provide the homeless everything they need to get off the streets for good — from a bed and a meal to sophisticated treatment programs and both medium-term and permanent housing.

Camillus administrators describe the three-story building as a welcoming new front door.

And for anyone coming in off the street, or who remembers the cramped, warren-like old downtown shelter, which was torn down 10 months ago, that is some front door indeed.

Beyond a broad reception desk and a comfortable waiting room that would not be out of place at an upscale medical office are areas for intake and registration, showers and storage and a mail-delivery room for the homeless, who usually lack a postal address. On the second floor is a fully equipped clinic, and on the third is the new 48-bed emergency shelter, which for the first time includes quarters for women.

Unlike the old dorm, with its close rows of bunk beds, the new one has individual beds.

Still to be completed: a rooftop garden that will be tended by Camillus residents.

The new shelter, Camillus board Chairman Bob Dickinson said, provides “a more dignified and therapeutic setting.’’ Once the shelter building is in full operation, the new campus will house 340 homeless people, or more than triple the capacity of the old downtown shelter. Eighty of them have been permanently settled in an apartment wing, the first phase of the new campus to open, for about 18 months.

The attractive and eco-friendly, energy-efficient shelter, which has been certified LEED Gold, also serves another purpose, said Camillus president Paul Ahr: Getting people in the door and comfortable enough they won’t want to leave.

“The longer they’re here, the better chance we have of getting them into a program,’’ Ahr said.

Because Florida Power & Light contributed $1 million towards its construction, the new building is called the FPL Power to Care Center. The clinic, meanwhile, was underwritten by a $1.5 million gift from Baptist Health.

Thursday also marked the formal dedication of Camillus House’s 120-foot carillon tower, emblazoned on four sides with the name of the new campus’ title donor, Norwegian Cruise Line, which contributed $5 million.

Dickinson, retired CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, joked during the dedication that the sight of the NCL name on the tower, prominently visible from I-95 and State Road 836, might inspire his old boss, Carnival and Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, to make his own sizeable gift to Camillus House.

The architecture of the campus, which features several buildings with arches and open breezeways grouped around interior gardens and patios, deliberately echoes a medieval monastery.

“It’s a very calming place,’’ Ahr said.

It grew out of a complex agreement between Camillus House and the city of Miami, which regarded the old shelter, its soup line and its clientele, many of whom overflowed the shelter’s capacity and slept on surrounding sidewalks, as a big obstacle to downtown redevelopment. In the end, it took a land swap with the University of Miami and an agreement by Camillus house to end its soup line.

The new campus is serving 1,000 meals a day out of its state-of-the art kitchen and dining room, Ahr said. But people must first be registered, and all feeding is done inside the campus and out of public view. The new campus also enables Camillus — which also operates satellite centers with emergency, transitional and permanent housing across Miami-Dade County — to keep more people off the streets, Ahr said.

The new shelter’s opening coincides with what appears to be a renewed effort by the city to crack down on the homeless. The city cited the nearby soup kitchen operated by the Sisters of Charity, Mother Theresa’s order, with a code violation for feeding homeless people without the proper permits. In a move spearheaded by the Downtown Development Agency, the city commission also voted on Thursday to ask a federal judge to substantially water down a longstanding agreement that bars police from arresting homeless people for sleeping and carrying out other life activities in public.

At the new shelter building, the clinic, intake and showers, and mailroom will begin operating within days, Ahr said. The dorm is set up, but Camillus administrators are finalizing contracts for grants from local governments to cover operating costs before it starts putting people in the beds.

Stays can last one night or many months, Ahr said.

“It all depends on the progress of the people here,’’ he said. “We hope most of them will think this beats life on the street.’’

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