A Miami police officer turns on his flashlight and a beam of light cuts through the darkness, illuminating the silhouettes of six figures tucked into a nook beneath the Flagler Street Bridge.
They lay down on concrete tonight. But if they want a bed, they’ll get one. And if they want a new home, they might get that too.
Late Thursday and into Friday morning, 10 homeless outreach teams fanned out over 43 blocks of downtown Miami in search of potential occupants for dozens of new shelter beds and nearly 100 new apartments. The effort by the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust and its partners was intended to help a chronic downtown homeless population that according to recent surveys is growing for the first time in years.
“We hoped it was an aberration, but it wasn’t,” said Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book, who was out in Miami Thursday night. “We needed a plan that was broader, and wider.”
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In January, an annual survey showed that more than 1,000 people were living on the streets of Miami-Dade, up by 20 percent from the previous year. Book said a follow-up in August showed the numbers weren’t a fluke, and that downtown has experienced a “spike” in numbers. So in order to address the growing population — amid biting criticisms out of downtown that the Trust wasn’t doing enough for the area — the Homeless Trust launched what it calls Strike Force: Urban Core.
Thursday evening was about documenting people on the streets in an area that spanned just about all of downtown south of Northeast Sixth Street to the Miami River. City of Miami outreach teams, police officers, and scores of other workers and volunteers teamed up to find and document roughly 240 men and women. Book said 100 refused to participate, but the rest gave their personal information to workers, who punched the details into iPad programs.
Starting Tuesday, the Trust will try to confirm the information, and if clients are proven to meet the federal criteria for a “housing first” unit, they will be placed in an apartment and surrounded with social services. The units, which cost about $16,000 a piece and come with a case manager, are funded by the federal government, which means they have strings attached in terms of who inhabits them.
“We really need to establish the longevity [of time on the street] as well as the disability,” said Trust Executive Director Victoria Mallette.
The program will run 90 days, which Trust officials believe is enough time to get clients back on their feet. If the effort works, Book said the Trust will seek to repeat the effort on a smaller scale once funding is available.
While the crews out Thursday night were focused on long-term solutions, that doesn’t mean they ignored the immediate needs of the people they encountered. As part of a recently inked agreement with the city of Miami, the city and Trust funded more than 150 new emergency shelter beds starting Thursday.
Overnight, more than 50 were placed in emergency beds at Camillus House and at Lotus House, including DeAngelo, a 39-year-old construction worker discovered among a group of men and women beneath the Flagler Street Bridge.
DeAngelo — he wouldn’t give his full name — said he came to Miami several months ago from Virginia to try to see his daughter. He said her mother wouldn’t allow him to be in their lives, and he ended up roaming Miami, sleeping in different places at night while working as a day laborer come sunrise.
“I move around. So scared,” he said, happy to be on his way to a shelter.
DeAngelo was headed to Camillus House, which through the agreement that launched Thursday was able to open up 75 new beds funded by the city and several related agencies in lieu of an outdoor mat program that was discontinued over the summer. Shed Boren, CEO of Camillus House, said the agency is turning beds into bunk beds to make room for the new clients.
“We're up to 57 [filled beds] as of noon. That's how fast it's coming in,” Boren said.
For DeAngelo, the extra space was a relief.
“I just don’t want nobody to hurt me,” he said, standing under a light beneath the bridge. “I just want to be off the streets.”