Miami city leaders didn’t quite get all they wanted Monday, but they believe they took a step forward in a quest to move the chronically homeless away from downtown, when Miami-Dade Homeless Trust members unanimously approved a $54.8 million budget that includes 85 new beds in city shelters.
Though Miami and the Homeless Trust officials seemed content with the agreement, Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book doesn’t think it will do anything to cure the issues of the homeless who have no desire to get off the street. Still, he wasn’t about to turn down enough money to buy 26 new permanent beds for local shelters.
Miami, in a move being led by the city’s downtown economic development agency, earlier voted to award the Homeless Trust $260,000, contingent on the trust placing 110 new beds in shelters within city boundaries. At a board meeting Monday, the Trust voted to purchase only 85 beds, with 25 of them coming from the city’s budget. For the city to hold up its end the deal, the issue must again go before city commissioners.
The Trust currently has 5,429 beds for the homeless, 1,496 of them in shelters within Miami city limits.
The city wants to rid its streets of the remaining homeless, so it also plans to petition the courts to amend the landmark 1997 Pottinger case, a consent decree that stops police from arresting the homeless for “life-sustaining” activities like sleeping on the street or making fires in public spaces. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff has been arguing on behalf of the Downtown Development Authority that he chairs that downtown has undergone significant changes and the terms of Pottinger are outdated. .
Though Book was theatrical in his negotiating of the number of beds the trust could squeeze into its 2014 budget Monday, he was emphatic in stating that overturning Pottinger and adding beds would do nothing to help the chronically homeless who often require years of psychiatric treatment and building trust before they’re willing to accept a temporary or permanent shelter.
“We will not have an arrest-and-release revolving door policy,” Book said to fellow trust member and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.
Sarnoff, who wasn’t present but had staff members attend the meeting, sounded pleased with the result in a statement released late in the afternoon.
“The beds approved by the city commission resolution and those funded by the Homeless Trust today both provide overnight shelter, meals, case management and an entry into the system. I applaud the Trust’s action, yet more needs to be done,” said Sarnoff.
The deal was reached Monday in part because Book and board members believe they can get more out of the city’s money than the city believes.
The Homeless Trust budget for the upcoming year includes 98 additional beds, but it doesn’t specifically say where the beds would go, and many of the Trust’s shelters are outside the city’s limits. The city calculated that $260,000 would mean an additional 15 beds. The trust contracts beds, which includes meals and services, for about $10,000 each a year. That means the Trust believes it can stretch Miami’s money into 26 beds, giving Book a little leeway.
The deal was struck after Regalado offered a motion to award the money to the Trust on the condition they add 85 beds of their own. When Book said 60 was the most the Trust could afford, the mayor accepted and said he’d take it back to the city commission. The city gives the Trust $186,000 a year. The mayor also noted the city spent millions of redevelopment dollars helping the homeless shelter Camillus House build a new state-of-the-art facility north of downtown.
“Lots of people thought the problems would end when we moved the Camillus House,” said Regalado. “I just want it on record that the beds will be used for the city of Miami.”
The city and Sarnoff are pushing hard to eliminate the remaining homeless in the downtown area, especially as thousands of new residents have moved into its skyscrapers and retailers have opened dozens of new restaurants up and down Flagler Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
The city and the Trust estimate there are about 350 people still living on downtown’s streets, though most, if not all, are believed to be chronically homeless who fight moves to find them shelter.
To strengthen the city’s hand, Sarnoff, fellow commissioners and the DDA are petitioning the courts to change the definition of “life-sustaining conduct” under Pottinger to exclude fires in parks, obstructing sidewalks, and certain lewd misconduct like urinating in public. They also want police to have the power to arrest the homeless who refuse to go to shelters three times in 180 days. The American Civil Liberties Union said it will listen to the city’s requests but warned of a looming battle.
In pushing his position, Sarnoff, who chairs the DDA, has even argued that cities continue to dump their homeless on Miami’s streets. Municipal leaders and Book counter that the few cities that did unload their homeless stopped the practice more than a decade ago.
Monday, after the budget vote and just prior to adjourning the session, Book looked directly at two Sarnoff staffers seated in the front row of the conference room.
“There is no known dumping going on,” he said.
The county’s Homeless Trust has long been recognized as a model for the nation. Founded two decades ago when more than 8,000 homeless flooded the county’s streets, those numbers have been reduced in total to less than 1,000. Only 351 are believed to be living in Miami.