As the funding for the Camillus House mat programs comes to an end, we believe it’s important to state that this entire controversy over mats in an open-air courtyard need not exist. A practical look at data and outcomes, with feelings put aside, demonstrates that mats do not work. Eighty-eight percent of people placed onto a mat never access permanent housing. Of those who do, about one-third return to the streets.
Therefore, mats are not the “temporary solution” the editorial board suggested in its recent editorial, as they are highly unsuccessful in breaking the cycle of homelessness. Mats will factually hinder our efforts to end chronic homelessness by 2017 for a number of reasons, including the diversion of tax dollars and limiting options for those we serve.
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department refuses to pay for mats because they steal precious resources from budget coffers without results. And we know that of the 400-plus continuums of care in the country that serve the homeless, only about seven use mats. Of those cities, most are used short-term, not as a solution to homelessness. And even still, those cities — Anchorage, Boston, New Orleans, and Bradenton — have seen their homeless numbers increase, not decrease. In a recent article, a San Antonio homeless director said of their mat program, “Ultimately, if you're not targeting what's at the core of the problem, you're not going to solve the problem. All that (the mat program) was doing was targeting the symptom — getting people off the street.” And worse, the courtyard program has earned a street reputation as a very dangerous place.
The data shows what does work: permanent housing. Ninety-eight percent of those permanently housed will remain housed. The Homeless Trust made a substantial investment to create more housing with supportive services for the chronic homeless, and will be able to serve approximately 100 individuals/couples when these new units come online in October.
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We are targeting those new units to the chronic homeless in downtown Miami. This 90-day effort called “Strike Force: Urban Core,” will house all those in a 42-block radius of downtown Miami and serve as a reminder that we are laser-focused on making a large-scale, long-term impact on homelessness downtown.
Even with our emphasis on permanent housing, there is more than one way to access the continuum of care. Our food and beverage tax supports more than 3,000 emergency and transitional housing beds. So permanent housing, as the editorial suggests, is not the “one and only” intervention. Furthermore, through our financial support of both Camillus Health Concern and City of Miami Homeless Outreach Program, we’ve seen the positive results of the “Lazarus Program”, which the Miami Herald recently profiled, with some of the most chronically homeless individuals in our community successfully served and housed — without a mat. We will continue to invest in specialized outreach, like this, to reach the hardest to serve.
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift on how to best deal with homelessness, and the story must be told. The approach is no longer to rehabilitate people and get them “housing ready.” The goal is “housing first.”
Housing becomes the tool, rather than the reward, for recovery and transformation. We need more “Housing First,” and the development and property management community that the Downtown Development Authority regularly engages should be playing a large role in creating and/or identifying housing solutions for the most vulnerable in our community. Our clients don’t need a luxury unit, just a modest apartment and a landlord willing to work with our service providers.
The question has been asked: “Why won’t the Trust just give a little? Just compromise?”
Why? Because every dollar diverted to mats is a living unit with a bathroom, kitchen and a bed that we can’t provide, or worse, a place we have to take away from someone who needs it.
We understand the desire of business owners and residents to make downtown Miami a vibrant and attractive place. Just as they seek quality of life for themselves, we seek it for those we serve. However, we cannot corral the homeless in an outdoor courtyard and say we’ve done our job. Our mission is to eliminate homelessness, not to “put” homeless people somewhere. If we’re going to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring, we need a community-wide effort that uses tax-payer dollars effectively and goes beyond sleeping mats.
Ronald L. Book is chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.