With money and time running out on a polarizing outdoor mat program serving Miami’s homeless, 11th-hour negotiations are underway to avoid putting as many as 115 men and women back on the streets.
As of Wednesday evening, no deal was in place to save Camillus House’s pavilion program, which lays out mats in a courtyard at the non-profit’s Northwest Seventh Avenue compound for men and women living on the streets of Miami. The city sponsors the program at a cost of about $60,000 a month, but funding expires Friday and the city has demanded Miami-Dade Homeless Trust pick up the payments.
With the Trust refusing, and a bitter feud escalating between Trust Chairman Ron Book and Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, the future of the program has looked bleak. But discussions shepherded by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez continued into the evening in the hopes of having an agreement in place by the time the Trust’s board holds an emergency 4 p.m. Thursday meeting.
“I’ve been here every night this week and talked to clients. They’re incredibly nervous,” said Camillus House CEO Shed Boren. “They don’t know what’s happening. The lack of information, they feel totally helpless.”
The deal being discussed would actually take most of the $700,000 the city spent this year on the mat program and funnel it into shelter beds, according to Sarnoff. The city would fund 75 beds at Camillus House, and the Homeless Trust would bid out another 75 shelter beds. The city, Trust and Camillus House would each pick up about a third of the cost, he said.
The proposal sounds like a compromise for both sides.
Preserving the shelter space is important for Miami, which established the mat program one year ago after amending a class-action settlement that restricts when Miami police can engage the homeless over misdemeanor offenses that become unavoidable for someone living on the street, like urinating in public. That settlement, called the Pottinger Agreement, requires officers to offer a shelter bed before threatening arrest. If no bed is available, police can do nothing.
And for Book, who has referred to the mat program as people “warehousing,” playing any role in the funding of mats has been a non-starter. Proponents argue, however, that the mats present a more palatable option for people who have spent years on the street.
“I’m extremely hopeful and I think everybody gets what they want,” Sarnoff said Wednesday afternoon. “Everybody acknowledges a bed is the best way to go as long as it’s Pottinger-eligible.”
The Trust, meanwhile, would still move forward with a recently announced 90-day program to find housing for all the homeless in a 42-block area of downtown, Sarnoff said, creating better services for downtown.
But, despite some optimism, coming to terms requires setting aside some bad blood. Sarnoff has accused Book of ignoring Miami’s homeless problem, and promoted a “poop map” created by the city’s Downtown Development Authority to shame Book into paying more attention to downtown’s homeless issues. Book, meanwhile, has dismissed Sarnoff’s knowledge on homeless treatment and just last week referred to Sarnoff’s handling of the debate as “despicable.”
“This is between the Homeless Trust, my mayor and the county commission, who I work with and serve, and the people of the city of Miami. Not Marc Sarnoff,” Book told a reporter after declining to discuss the specifics of the negotiations. “I will have a lot to say tomorrow.”
Despite the continuing barbs, Boren said he has planned a mild celebration for Thursday in the hopes that an agreement will fall into place.
“I just asked the catering guy to put in an order for ice cream,” he said. “I plan on having an ice cream party with my folks to celebrate that fewer people are on the street.”