Howard “Red” Heffner once dug graves for the U.S. Army in South Carolina. He was discharged after a short while, became a club security guard in Indiana, got into trouble and served time in Ohio, and drove a Cadillac to Florida.
Bowen started over as day laborer and stayed in a budget motel along Biscayne Boulevard before he ended up sleeping in the shadows of Overtown, where everything he owns fits in a portable metal cart. Today, home is a rag-tag encampment along the chain-link fence on 14th Street just below the rumble and roar of the concrete Interstate 95 overpasses. He lives with his girlfriend and a dog named Big Foot.
“Been living in these streets since 1998. At this point, it’s all I know. I had everything and I lost everything,’’ said Bowen, 60, one of the county’s homeless veterans. “It would be hard for me to leave now, but I am willing to try but I want to make sure I can take my girl and dog with me. I don’t want to leave them behind.”
With Miami’s biannual count of the community’s homeless population, the focus is on identifying veterans and quickly getting them into stable housing — part of an ambitious national campaign to end veteran homelessness through street outreach and social services. In Miami-Dade, the number of veterans is about 240. Of that number, about 80 are sheltered.
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For six hours before dawn Friday, volunteers scoured the streets to count the total number of homeless people living in the county as part of the “point-in-time” survey coordinated by the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust with support from community partners.
“We search every street, every alley, every building, every bridge, every place that we know homeless are, we search and we count,’’ said Ronald L. Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust. “The point-in-time survey allows you to determine where best to place your resources in the fight to end homeless in our community. Our priority right now is to end veteran homelessness by Dec. 31, 2015, and we are well on our way to doing so.’’
For more than a dozen years, the Homeless Trust has conducted the survey as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to count the community’s homeless one day during the last 10 days of January. Miami-Dade does a second annual count, with the most recent in August. That census showed there were 4,141 homeless with 792 living on the streets. The new numbers should be available next week. In a week-long campaign called “iCount,” the Homeless Trust is also working to count unaccompanied, homeless youth 13 to 24 years old.
“Outreach workers, providers and volunteers literally comb every single street by foot and by vehicle to find those who need our help,” Book said. “It’s a tedious and long process, but it is necessary to ensure we understand the trends and needs of the homeless in our community.”
In working to end veteran homelessness, the Homeless Trust is working with the VA and the HUD agencies. But its not just about a place to sleep.
“We have housing available for veterans. Once we identify them, we pull them off the street. If we don’t have a bed in permanent housing, we get them into something temporarily until we can can place them,” Book said. “We are taking a holistic approach. It’s about case management and making certain we are providing the mental health related services, the substance abuse, alcohol abuse, the totality of their needs.’’
In 2009, President Barack Obama and former VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced the 2015 goal. In the four years that followed, the number of homeless veterans dropped by about a one-third. The 2014 point-in-time showed that there were almost 50,000 homeless veterans nationwide on a single night in January 2014.
In October, the Obama administration also announced more funding for the initiative, pushing nearly $270 million into social programs to address the problem, including rental-assistance programs and rapid-assistance grants to help veterans secure permanent housing or keep their current homes.
How to Help
The Homeless Trust, in partnership with the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, is conducting a count of unaccompanied, homeless youth ages 13-24, called “iCount.” Any person who knows of an unaccompanied homeless person aged 13 to 24 years old are asked to encourage the youth to call 2-1-1 or visit www.icountmiami.com through Jan. 28 where they can conduct an anonymous survey about their circumstances.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has founded a National Call Center for Homeless Veterans hotline to ensure that homeless Veterans or Veterans at-risk for homelessness have free, 24/7 access to trained counselors. Call 1-877-4AID VET (877-424-3838).