The night before he asked a Miami policeman to help get his life back on track, Terrance Wilson rode the Night Owl bus to nowhere.
He rolled in twilight, circling Miami-Dade from a Miami Gardens Walmart down to Government Center and then back to Aventura Mall. He dozed lightly to keep sharp turns from throwing his large frame from his seat.
The accommodations were a step up from the mall bus stop where Wilson says he has spent many nights during the last four years after drugs, alcohol and diabetes derailed his life and drove him to the streets. But when his ride ended in the morning, Wilson, 53, said he’d had enough. So he went to Camillus House and flagged down an officer to ask for a referral to the Overtown shelter’s new, temporary housing program.
“I want other doors to open for me,” Wilson said. “Have somewhere to rest, and call my own.”
Wilson was among the first 15 tenants of Camillus House’s “low-demand” outdoor shelter that for the first time Friday welcomed homeless guests to sleep on 100 padded mats beneath a large pavilion with roll-down plastic screens to block out rain and outlets for heaters on cold nights.
The $700,000 initiative was established to reserve beds for the roughly 400 homeless citizens in downtown, who when stopped by Miami police must be given the option to go to a shelter rather than jail if a bed is available. The program has critics who say that lax overnight shelters are counterproductive to efforts to eradicate homelessness. But Camillus House leaders believe the relaxed atmosphere will be an olive branch to those who are chronically homeless and convince many to get off the streets for good.
“We’re here to get people to break the cycle,” said Camillus House president Paul Ahr. “That’s our metric.”
The first tenants arrived early Friday, rustled up by Miami police from their resting place in Coconut Grove’s Peacock Park. Angel Minagorri, a deeply tanned landscape worker who says he has spent the last month sleeping beneath the canopy of the park’s Glass House building, said police told him and a half-dozen others they could go to jail or go to Camillus House.
“I didn’t want to go to jail,” Minagorri said.
Then and now
This routine has played out since 1998 in the city of Miami, where the Pottinger legal settlement has given the homeless more rights than the average citizen when it comes to “life-sustaining” acts, like urinating on the street or lighting fires for heat.
The problem with the shelter-or-jail arrangement, says Ahr, is that Camillus House is often full. “There tended to be very few beds, so in a sense it was a bogus offer.”
The other problem, which came to a head last year: Miami merchants and politicians said that downtown Miami, where close to half of the county’s homeless population lives, has changed. In an area that has nearly doubled in population since 1988 and is now host to a bevy of cultural venues, current residents are far less accepting of homelessness.
The city approved a new agreement with the ACLU in January that watered down some rights and allowed homeless citizens to be offered a mat for a bed. The city also committed to fund Camillus House’s Pavilion program as a means to provide guaranteed shelter for those stopped by city police.
To help pay for the program, the city decommitted some $260,000 from the Homeless Trust, which spends $60 million to house and feed residents in Miami-Dade County. City-affiliated agencies also last month committed close to $400,000 to fund the services tied to the pavilion shelter, which is located in a wide courtyard built over an old parking lot.
Under the new program, 30 mats will be reserved for new referrals by police. The remaining 70 are for guests who want to continue to stay at Camillus House — and who Camillus House continues to believe are willing to try to end their lives on the streets. The process is loosely defined, and while social services and drug treatment are available, they aren’t mandatory, at least not at first.
In the beginning, there are only a few rules: no weapons, no drugs and no anti-social behavior, Ahr said. Guests also get showers and meals.
Similar programs around the state have been polarizing. In Pinellas County, a jail-diversion shelter for the homeless, Safe Harbor, opened several years ago. In downtown Orlando, an outdoor homeless pavilion opened in 1991 and was hailed by some as a national model. But it recently closed to make way for a permanent building where being a guest bears greater requirements. The change was attributed to a tough-love shift in philosophy on how to treat the homeless.
Ron Book, chairman of the Homeless Trust, said he believes that Miami and Camillus House are throwing away their money and time on the “feel-good” pavilion program. He says it’s counterproductive because it enables the behavior of the homeless rather than addressing it. He said the chronic homeless need permanent housing and intense, mandatory social and health services.
“They take the position that it’s a more compassionate thing to get someone off the street and give them a warm meal, a shower and a mat. And if you simply look at that on face value you’d say that’s right. That’s logical,” Book said. “Here’s the problem: By everybody’s acknowledged numbers, 40 percent or so of that 850 [Miami-Dade homeless] still on the street are chronic. And the chronic will use any excuse in the book not to come off the streets.”
Ahr acknowledges that there are critics even at Camillus House who don’t believe in the pavilion program, which is actually a reboot from a larger, looser program created at the shelter’s old location to house the dozens who would simply spend the night outside the shelter. But he said buying mats and allowing flexibility is a way to pull in chronic homeless who otherwise would have no beds available and likely wouldn’t be interested in the strict requirements for typical Camillus House guests, who have to search for jobs and seek drug-abuse treatment.
Worst case, he said, is there will be dozens fewer homeless on the brutal streets each night, at risk of being attacked.
“It is far better for us to shelter the homeless than to bury the dead,” he said.
Giving it a chance
At dusk Friday, some admitted to the program had already left. At least a few never bothered to register. But the first 15 guests settled down on their mats, sleeping and playing cards.
Minagorri, who became homeless a month ago when his 92-year-old father died and he lost his dad’s HUD apartment, lay on his back, showered and reading a book. He said finding a place to stay has been difficult because he needs to keep a tree-trimming job in Coconut Grove, but he would give Camillus House a shot if he could use Metrorail and get to work on time.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a picnic,” he said. “I’ve got a bed for the first time in a month.”
Wilson said he’s looking for renewal. He said he had been calling the Homeless Helpline for days without luck and had heard about the pavilion program’s opening.
“The streets, it’s not a place for me to be,” he said. “Camillus House is a good place.”