A bruising political battle that brought a powerful lobbyist and a Miami commissioner down to the mat ended Friday with a compromise that ends a polarizing outdoor homeless shelter program but invests more money in downtown services.
The last-minute agreement finalized Friday between the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, the county and the city of Miami phases out a city-sponsored program at Camillus House that over the last year placed 1,242 men and women on three-inch-thick mattresses outside in a courtyard. In its place and starting in October, the city and the county’s homeless services coordinator each will fund at least 75 emergency beds, half of which will be reserved for Miami’s homeless.
The 73 people sill sleeping on mats will be transitioned into traditional shelters. And in a few weeks, the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust will begin scouring an area of downtown to find apartments for another 91 men and women.
“This memorandum is going to make a difference in this community,” Homeless Trust Chairman and super-lobbyist Ron Book said. “We’re going to start today to mend some of those wounds that I helped create.”
The compromise reached Friday — just hours before funding for the Camillus House mat program expired — is a concession by the city of Miami and downtown-area Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who spent the last few months hammering the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust in the media and in court over its refusal to pay the $60,000 monthly cost for the mats.
The mats were rolled out last August after the city amended a landmark class-action settlement that gave Miami’s homeless special rights and required police to offer a shelter bed (or mat) before arresting someone for “life-sustaining” behavior like urinating on the street or starting a fire in a park. According to Camillus House, 823 of the men and women who passed through the program moved off a mat and into a shelter or some kind of special treatment.
Sarnoff and downtown boosters argued that the mats — rolled out instead of beds because of concerns about an expansion of Camillus House’s Norwegian Cruise Lines campus and a belief in the value of a less restrictive shelter program — would bring in men and women reluctant to enter traditional shelters. But Book fought back, saying the low expectations that came with the program enabled the kind of behaviors that kept people from rehabilitating their lives.
The debate was at times crass. The tax-funded downtown-booster agency Sarnoff chairs produced a map of locations where feces — presumably human — was discovered, to try to shame Book into spending more money in downtown, where about one-third of the county’s 1,000 homeless men and women are located.
Occasionally it was personal, with Book belittling Sarnoff’s knowledge of homeless programs and Sarnoff questioning the Homeless Trust’s handling of its roughly $60 million budget.
And it was high drama, with Book digging in his heels and inviting scrutiny into his role as the Trust’s long-time chairman and his control over its budget. Sarnoff, meanwhile, refused to put in any more money into a program he touted, his constituents wanted, and his wife, who is campaigning to win a November election for the seat he is vacating, helped support financially.
But the two men made amends Thursday, and Sarnoff and the city gave up on their push to keep mats available.
“At the end of the day 341 souls will come off the street and have the opportunity to be cared for in the continuum of care,” Sarnoff said. “The mats were a non-starter.”
Book and Sarnoff now say that, while bloody, the fight was all for the good. A program with 115 mats has turned into the promise of at least 241 beds, many of which will go to downtown homeless men and women. The Trust, according to public documents, will spend up to $700,000 with money pulled from reserves. And the city, after balking for months at paying for services, still will invest several hundred thousand dollars in beds.
The Miami Commission and the Miami-Dade County Commission are expected to vote in September on the agreement.
In the meantime, Camillus House is supposed to continue serving those still in the mat program until the Homeless Trust can transfer them into a traditional shelter. CEO Shed Boren said he’s not sure how that will happen or who will pay for it, but that his shelter will do everything it can.
“I’ve just been going on blind faith,” he said.