Louis, a 47-year-old from Liberty City, sleeps alongside the Miami River with his girlfriend, a recent northern transplant. They avoid downtown, fearing violence and police who shoo them around. Louis works loading boats that take rice, flour and other basic necessities to Haiti. Despite being a disabled veteran, he has been unable to access benefits, told at Jackson Memorial Hospital that he needs major hip surgery, but it would cost him $17,000.
Nevertheless, Louis hopes to save money, help his girlfriend get a job and move into an efficiency apartment by Christmas. He does not use shelters because he sees himself as “unprogrammable,” without a drug problem and averse to residents who take on pseudo-staff positions and abuse power.
Stephon, a 46-year-old from Brooklyn, came to Miami for roofing work after Hurricane Andrew. But he brought more than his manpower, arriving addicted to alcohol and crack. After work ran out, he cycled between the streets, jails and rehab for two decades. He completed a rehab program, but could not find a job and relapsed. So, he went back to sleeping in a secluded area near Northwest Eighth Street to avoid police.
Stephon commutes to a downtown café where he cleans the kitchen and seating area and helps with shopping, earning $10 to $20 a day, depending on his employer’s mood. He hopes to get clean and into an apartment, but doubts he can make rent.
In addition to biographical characteristics and the predicament of homelessness, Louis and Stephon have other things in common. Miami’s emergency-shelter system offers little promise of helping them escape homelessness.
Also, both would be ill-served by recent proposals of downtown economic interests and city government representatives. They look to revisit the 1998 Pottinger vs. City of Miami decision barring police from ticketing and arresting for survival activities amid homelessness like public urination and sleeping on sidewalks. They argue that since housing resources increased after Pottinger, partially funded by a 1 percent food and beverage tax, police should have more authority to crack down on the “service resistant” who impede efforts to establish the area as a global entertainment and finance destination.
But changing Pottinger would be a major retreat.
The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust reports that the number of people on the streets has declined from 2,490 in October 1998 to 848 in August 2013. This success, often hailed by Urban Institute homelessness expert Martha Burt, has come through a private-public sector collaboration emerging from the Pottinger decision that invests in a housing-first approach.
This places people not in shelters but directly into subsidized housing of their own, where rent is fixed at one third of income, and provides supportive services to foster stability and self-sufficiency. It is highly tolerant, encouraging people to remain in housing, treatment, and services rather than terminating them for episodes, relapses, losing employment, and other issues. Research has repeatedly shown housing first is much more successful in promoting durable escapes from homelessness than emergency shelter and transitional housing. Moreover, it is more cost-effective than cycling people between streets, shelters, jails, and emergency rooms.
However, the proposed adjustments to Pottinger represent flight toward a police-first approach applied in Los Angeles in the mid-2000s. Police officers were given authority to offer shelter or citations to people illegally occupying public spaces and, with repeat offenses, arrest. Analysis by conservative criminologists showed the initiative to be extremely expensive, yet ineffective in reducing street homelessness.
If downtown interests think clearly in terms of financial and human costs, they should lead a private-sector effort to raise funds for another major increase of supportive housing. Local government should garner funds from state and federal sources and help locate housing. A number of private, nonprofit organizations in Miami have tremendous expertise transforming lives through housing first.
Well-trained, experienced outreach workers can overcome distrust and should be on the front lines; the police are better trained to fight crime than poverty. Much is on the line at this juncture, but evidence shows that only collaboration between for-profit, public and nonprofit sectors to dramatically increase subsidized, permanent supportive housing will keep Miami on course to be truly exemplary in addressing, and eventually ending, homelessness.
Matthew D. Marr is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies and the Asian Studies Program at Florida International University. All personal names in this report are pseudonyms.