Miami-Dade County is in an all-out sprint to end homelessness. On the heels of successfully housing more than 80 homeless persons, including veterans and chronically homeless people, in the past 100 days, we’re doubling down and committing to house more than twice that number by February 2015. Our local efforts are part of a federal push to end veteran homelessness by 2015, and chronic homelessness by 2016.
Twenty-five years ago, the thought of ending homelessness was merely a dream. More than 8,000 people in our community, including many families, lived in conditions that would have been a disgrace to a third-world nation. There was no plan, no money, no leadership and no ownership of the homeless problem. The late Alvah Chapman, chairman of Knight-Ridder newspapers, changed all that when he embarked on a civic and spiritual calling to help those he referred to as the “least, last, lost and forgotten.” Chapman formed a coalition that successfully created Miami-Dade’s “continuum of care,” providing homeless individuals with not only food, shelter and clothing, but the services needed to help them return to society.
Today, the number of homeless people living on the streets of Miami-Dade County is less than one-tenth of what it was. Fewer than 800 homeless individuals were counted during the August census — the lowest summer count on record. On any given night, an estimated 8,300 people who would otherwise be homeless are safely sheltered or housed and provided the tools and support they need to regain independence.
With all that has been accomplished, the greatest challenge lies ahead. In large part, those who remain on the streets are the chronic homeless with severe disabling conditions — mental illness, physical illness, substance abuse and sometimes all three. We’re strategically tackling these toughest of cases with an engaged network of service providers, mental-health and criminal-justice experts, elected officials and business leaders — all focused on tackling homelessness once and for all.
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We’re successfully identifying the most vulnerable individuals remaining on the streets and providing them housing first, then supportive treatment services. Ninety-five percent of those assisted do not return to the streets, and taxpayers are spared the costly burden of paying for repeated emergency-room visits, jail time and hospital stays. We need more developers and landlords to step forward in support of “housing first.”
For the first time, we’re assessing homeless individuals who have refused services and been previously unwilling or unable to tell us who they are.
As part of a pilot program, homeless outreach teams, together with healthcare professionals, are treating some of these severely mentally ill homeless on the streets in an effort to get them to a place where they are lucid and willing to receive services. Initial reports are encouraging.
A new Mental Health Diversion Facility is being fast-tracked for design and construction. It will serve as a “one-stop shop” rehabilitation facility for the mentally ill — many of whom are homeless — and find themselves caught up in the criminal-justice system.
It will take all of these tools — and more — to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and chronic homelessness in 2016, but it’s a challenge we and so many in our community have embraced. On this, Homeless Awareness Day, the goal of ending homelessness seems within our collective reach. Together, we will get it done.
Ron Book is chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.