Controversy is simmering in Miami-Dade County, again, over the homeless: where to put them, where they should relieve themselves, where they should sleep and, as important, how to ensure downtown Miami remains an attractive place.
At the heart of the issue? Sleeping mats, and whether they are a sound alternative to having homeless people sleep in doorways and under overpasses, especially the chronically homeless who have not volunteered to enter what is called the “continuum of care” offered by the Homeless Trust, the agency charged with ending homelessness in Miami-Dade.
Trust chairman and lobbyist Ron Book is adamant that no money from the Trust be spent on a temporary solution like sleeping mats. And he certainly doesn’t want the $700,000 requested by the Downtown Development Authority, chaired by Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, to come from the trust’s $57 million budget. Mr. Book wants the homeless to be put into permanent housing, the tried-and-true solution to ending homelessness, he told the Editorial Board.
But a walk around downtown Miami makes clear that tried-and-true cannot not be the one-and-only.
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Mr. Sarnoff and other officials don’t have the luxury of viewing the problem from Mr. Book’s singular lens. They have to take a broader view — and the solutions, such as sleeping mats at Camillus House is an appropriate tool. Perfect? No, but the mat program puts homeless men and women within arm’s reach of Camillus’ rehabilitation programs that can transform their lives. And that’s a darn sight better than having them languish on the streets. The homeless in downtown can number about 150 on any given night. Their impact on small businesses and residents whose sidewalks, building entrances and parking lots turn into campgrounds in the wee hours is a quality-of-life issue that must be addressed comprehensively.
In an effort to get its point across, the DDA recently released the eyebrow-raising Poop Map — sites where the homeless relieve themselves in public. The map generated national attention — and local embarrassment. Mr. Sarnoff warns it will all get worse Aug. 1, when the city’s shelter program at Camillus House loses funding, something that shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
The historic 1998 Pottinger Agreement allows homeless people in Miami to engage in “life-sustaining activities,” such as urinating, bathing and lying down, in public. If caught, police can offer them a choice: a shelter or jail. The Camillus mats meet the requirement for shelter. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this,” Mr. Sarnoff told the Editorial Board, days after heated exchanges with an agitated Mr. Book in front of county commissioners, some of whom sided with Mr. Book.
“I’m not going to spend $700,000 of our limited resources on mat programs that are proven not to be effective in getting people off the streets,” he reiterated to the Board. Mr. Book has led the trust, founded in 1993, for an unusually long time. Under him, the trust has rehabilitated up to 8,000 homeless people. Impressive.
Mr. Sarnoff says commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez want him to sit down with Mr. Book and work it out. If compromise remains elusive, then county, and also city, commissioners need to toughen up and work with the DDA to grant its request. After all, Miami’s downtown is Miami-Dade County’s downtown, too. Though giving homeless people permanent homes is, rightly, the ultimate goal, there is more than one way to get them there.