When the Miami City Commission decides Thursday whether to provide funding for 15 new beds at homeless shelters, community activists, business leaders and other elected officials will be watching.
But the vote may amount to little more than political theater.
The proposed investment by the city is conditioned on the county Homeless Trust agreeing to fund an additional 85 beds — and the Homeless Trust is refusing to go along.
“We’re not going to buy shelter beds,” Executive Director Hilda Fernandez said. “It’s not our model. Shelter beds don’t provide a means to become self sufficient.”
The debate is part of a recently reignited conversation over how Miami handles its homeless. At its center: a landmark 1997 settlement known as Pottinger v. Miami, which prevents Miami police from arresting homeless people for minor offenses without first offering them an available bed in a shelter.
Miami Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff says the 15-year-old legal ruling needs be modernized, partly because some of the allowed activities are a threat to public safety, and also because the homeless remain vulnerable to becoming victims themselves.
But Sarnoff also believes the ruling has prevented city leaders from addressing chronic homelessness. Most homeless shelters are at capacity, leaving the police unable to do anything about the people who refuse help. Many of those people suffer from mental illness or substance-abuse issues, and have remained on the streets.
“We’ve been at this work for more than 10 years and there are still 351 homeless people on the streets of downtown Miami,” Sarnoff said. “If we don’t do something different, the situation will never change.”
Sarnoff called the new beds “an important first step.” He has requested the commission set aside $240,000 to pay for bed maintenance plus food, electricity and basic in-take services for the occupants.
The Homeless Trust’s Fernandez, however, insists that increasing the number of beds in shelters will not help the problem.
“We should be focusing on the bigger picture,” Fernandez said. “It’s about keeping people in the system, not just keeping people housed for one evening.”
She and other Homeless Trust officials would prefer to fund more “emergency beds.” Unlike shelter beds, which can be accessed by homeless people with few strings attached, emergency bed is the term used for beds that are accompanied by case-management services, such as healthcare and employment referral services. The approach is more expensive, but Fernandez says it yields long-term results.
Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book said the trust is pursing a larger plan to increase the number of emergency beds, as well as provide more transitional housing for people moving out of shelters. Details will be firmed up at a June 25 meeting, he said.
“We’ve been successful in our work so far,” Book said. “Let us stick to our plan.”
Since the Pottinger settlement, the number of homeless people in Miami-Dade County has dropped from more than 8,000 to about 900. Still, homelessness is pervasive in downtown Miami, where about 350 people sleep on the streets of the retail district, under the overpasses and around County Hall.
Pottinger, in part, makes Miami attractive to the homeless. The settlement applies only to actions by Miami police, meaning homeless people living in other municipalities can be arrested for loitering, littering and being naked in public — but those in Miami cannot.
Sarnoff said officers from other departments have even been caught “dumping [homeless] people in the city [of Miami].”
Some advocates are on board with Sarnoff’s proposal to add 15 new beds at shelters within city limits, including Camillus House president and CEO Paul Ahr.
Sarnoff also counts Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez as a supporter, he said. Gimenez was out of the country Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Representatives from the city, county and Homeless Trust are planning to meet on the issue Monday.
City commissioners will weigh in earlier, in a vote that could put pressure on the Homeless Trust to fold.
Sarnoff will likely win the vote of Commissioner Francis Suarez, who called spending money on the homeless “the human thing to do.”
Commissioner Frank Carollo said he would be willing to hear Sarnoff’s case.
“But if the action is conditional on the Homeless Trust paying 85 percent and the Homeless Trust is against it, to me, it’s a moot point,” he said.
Regardless, Fernandez said the Homeless Trust board is unlikely to change course.
“We are going to do what we believe we need to do, consistent with our model for helping homeless people,” she said.