Help for Miami’s chronic homeless



Miami and the many agencies dealing with the less fortunate are on the threshold of taking the next major step in our 20-year quest to end homelessness in our community. Working in unison, the time is right to reduce the last vestige of homeless in Miami: the chronic homeless, many of whom have been on the streets for multiple years, even multiple decades.

The Miami City Commission recently passed a resolution that I introduced calling for funding for an additional 100 shelter beds that would allow authorities and social service agencies a means to offer the homeless a way off the streets and back into society. The city is taking the lead, funding 15 beds, contingent on the Homeless Trust funding another 85 beds. Providing 100 homeless with a safe environment, clean beds, showers, three daily meals and protection for their property and their pets will be a major step forward.

The door is open. Now it is up to the board of the Miami Homeless Trust to build on its success and, working within its own guidelines, use part of the surplus from its $52 million budget to take the next step in its mission and help alleviate the plight of the chronic homeless.

Since the Homeless Trust — funded through a special local restaurant tax — was created, the number of homeless has declined from estimates of up to 9,000, down to approximately 800. The Trust, the Chapman Partnership, The Salvation Army, Camillus House and other agencies have virtually eliminated situational homelessness — the adults and families on the streets because of a lost job or other economic circumstances.

In 1998, what is known as the Pottinger settlement to a lawsuit, about how police treated the homeless, added impetus to the movement and afforded the homeless additional protections for “life-sustaining” activities for which other citizens would be arrested.

Unfortunately, today, the chronic homeless continue in their plight. Of the 800 homeless in Miami-Dade, 500 are in the city of Miami — 350 of them downtown. There are beds available at shelters, but two issues must be overcome: funding and making sure the programs don’t violate restrictions imposed by Pottinger of forced drug or psychiatric treatment. The ability to work within the Pottinger guidelines is essential.

It doesn’t matter whether we call these “shelter beds” or “emergency beds.” They both carry case management services that are the entry point to a continuum of care. Let’s fund the beds.

I am greatly encouraged by recent developments at the Homeless Trust that could make the 100 beds a reality. The Trust’s executive director, Hilda Fernandez, told her board of “the likelihood that it would result in funding additional emergency beds . . . which is not precluded by the Pottinger settlement simply because the emergency beds we fund do not require ‘forced treatment for mental or substance abuse issues.’ ”

A working group made up of Trust, Miami-Dade County, city of Miami and Downtown Development Authority representatives on Monday further refined what the process should be.

Let’s give the homeless the opportunity to come off the streets, away from drug pushers and predators and pimps and into a clean, safe environment where they can receive whatever help they need and will accept.

The Trust board now must take up the challenge and do its part.

The continued predicament of the chronic homeless and the restrictions Pottinger places on their treatment brings up another key issue that must be addressed: The Pottinger settlement was not intended to be a solution for the chronic homeless.

This is a reality often overlooked in the debate. Over the past 15 years, Pottinger helped get some 90 percent of the homeless off the streets. But those remaining need a different solution. That is why the Downtown Development Authority has proposed modifications to Pottinger that would allow police to enforce the laws the rest of society must follow — no public nudity, defecating or urinating in public, blocking sidewalks or starting fires and erecting structures in parks. These changes will allow authorities and social service agencies to help those who can’t help themselves because of mental illness or the effects of their years-long drug abuse. We will ask a federal judge to decide what modifications are proper in light of today’s reality.

There is no doubt these two initiatives will improve the lives of the homeless and everyone in the city of Miami. Let’s seize the day!

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

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