Marc Sarnoff: On Miami’s homeless, let’s get them beds

The City of Miami, working through the Downtown Development Authority, is pursuing a multi-faceted approach to deal with one of the most difficult issues facing our community — providing humane help for the homeless within existing regulations, while affording reasonable safeguards to Miami residents and visitors.

All residents of the City of Miami deserve the protection, benefits and services that are part of our society and that government provides. City residents and workers, business owners and the homeless alike share in these benefits and services. In Miami-Dade County, the homeless receive additional protections created in the 1998 settlement of a lawsuit about how homeless were treated.

In 1998, there were an estimated 6,000 homeless in Miami-Dade. The resolution of the case, known as the Pottinger Settlement Agreement, was a key component in creating a homeless assistance program that has been hailed as a national model.

Under Pottinger, the homeless cannot be harassed by police. They can’t be arrested for “life-sustaining” activities such as defecating or urinating on the streets, taking naked baths, starting fires for warmth or blocking private property. Many have been living on the streets for numerous years, even decades. In that sense, Pottinger clearly has NOT worked for them. And without different solutions, we can’t expect a different outcome.

The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, created through the work of the Governor’s Commission on Homeless, administers the proceeds of a food and beverage tax that collects approximately $16 million a year for homeless issues, along with money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, grants and private donations — $49 million a year in all. It works with 26 agencies that provide services to the homeless.

The combined efforts have been successful. The number of homeless has dropped to 500 in the City of Miami, 351 of them downtown. But those numbers have remained unchanged for several years. Those left on the streets are typically the “chronic homeless” who refuse help, due often to mental illness or long-term drug abuse.

And there lie the unintended consequences. The homeless population is vulnerable to predators who steal their meager possessions. Homeless women constantly fear being raped. On the other hand, Pottinger gives protection to the homeless and impunity to break laws that all others must abide by. And in doing so, it infringes on the rights of those who obey the law.

Under the Pottinger Settlement Agreement there must be a guarantee of an open bed at a shelter before a police officer can ask a homeless person to move. Many beds at shelters within the city of Miami are funded and reserved for the homeless of other municipalities, but often go unused. Additionally, there are more than 100 other beds available in shelters, but those beds go unused because they are unfunded.

To rectify this problem, I am introducing a resolution for the City of Miami that urges the Homeless Trust to take some of the $8 million surplus it enjoyed this year and fund 85 beds. For its part, the city will provide funds for 15 year-round shelter beds. That would give the Miami the opportunity to each night place 100 homeless persons in a safe environment — protected from predators, and provided with meals, a bed, shower, lockers for their possessions, and even kennels for their pets. These overnight shelter beds are the entry point for homeless individuals to get the help and support they need. Those who accept help, get it.

The Trust has indicated it may fund “emergency beds” with case management services, with the ability for the homeless to remain in those beds and engage in the continuum of care. That is a good starting point. Pottinger precludes forced treatment for mental or substance abuse issues often associated with “emergency beds.” Whether we call these shelter beds, emergency beds, overnight beds or other nomenclature, we need a way to get homeless off the street within the Pottinger rules. Semantics shouldn’t force the homeless to stay on the street.

For one, Camillus House, whose mission is to eliminate chronic homelessness in Miami, provides just that — emergency shelter beds with case management for every individual and without forced treatment. Camillus and other agencies, such as the Chapman Partnership, provide the needed entry point for the homeless to access the continuum of care available. Fears of “warehousing” the homeless are an unfounded myth, as these agencies, which already provide services to the Trust, will attest unequivocally.

Our goals — the city, the Trust and the providers — are the same: provide the means to get the homeless into a system where they can end their odyssey on the streets and be in a safe environment, with proper nutrition and sanitary facilities. That is the first step in their journey to receive care and regain their place in society.

We’ve come a long way in 15 years to simultaneously improve the plight of the homeless and revitalize downtown. It’s time to take the next steps to enhance the existing solutions for both the homeless and the all the people of Miami.

In addition to providing additional beds, the Pottinger Settlement Agreement must be amended to provide better solutions to the chronic homeless and safeguards for others from having to deal with feces and urine on their thresholds and sidewalks, lewd misconduct and fires.

Fifteen years ago the Pottinger Settlement made provisions to allow for modifications to address the inevitable “change of circumstances” that the future would bring. We are following that process for the benefit of everyone in our City.

Marc Sarnoff is chairman of the Miami City Commission, representing District 2, and chairman of the Downtown Development Authority.

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