Miami-Dade County

Homeless Trust chairman pressures Miami Beach to embrace restaurant tax

Persons wait in line to eat at the dining hall at Camillus House on Friday.
Persons wait in line to eat at the dining hall at Camillus House on Friday.

The chairman of Miami-Dade’s Homeless Trust remained adamant Friday that the public agency will not bail out a popular but closing daytime center in Miami despite pressure from downtown residents.

Instead, Ron Book deflected criticism across the causeways, urging anyone concerned about dwindling homeless services to lean on Miami Beach commissioners, whom he says are blocking a food and beverage tax that could generate an estimated $6 million a year for those services.

“I told you if we didn’t find a way to expand the tax, the [population] numbers in downtown and the numbers throughout the community were going to go in the wrong direction,” said Book, who wants Miami Beach, Bal Harbour and Surfside to adopt an otherwise countywide sales tax funding homeless services. “The only way we’re going to get more resources, the only way these numbers aren’t going to go up, and continue to go down, is if I get more recurring revenue.”

Book’s comments came just hours after Camillus House began the first day of scaled-back day center programming providing showers, hot meals, clothes and a place to rest to homeless men and women at its Seventh Avenue campus. The program had been serving about 340 people a day, according to Camillus House, but has grown too expensive following funding reductions last summer.

The only way we’re going to get more resources is if I get more recurring revenue

Ron Book, chairman of Miami-Dade Homeless Trust

For the first time Friday, Camillus House limited admission to the first 110 men and 40 women who came through its doors. Employees said maybe 40 or 50 were turned away Friday, on what ended up being a slow day.

Come July 1, barring an injection of new money, the day center will close, leaving its afternoon clients to search elsewhere for food and shelter.

“This right here gives people a place to be,” said Sam Walton, 60, waiting Friday afternoon at Camillus House to eat a lunch of Salisbury steak, bread, green beans and mashed potatoes. “I ain’t gonna have nowhere to go.”

Many of the men and women who travel to Camillus House each day for free food and showers come from Allapattah, Overtown, and downtown, which is not only Miami’s economic engine but also its hub for the homeless. Some living in the area say they’re concerned that closing the day center will exacerbate a problem with the chronic homeless.

The safety of all residents and workers and visitors in downtown Miami is at even greater risk

Steve Dutton

“The safety of all residents and workers and visitors in downtown Miami is at even greater risk,” said Steve Dutton, whose husband, Tom Lang, died this summer after being attacked in downtown by a mentally ill homeless man.

At the Homeless Trust’s Friday meeting at the Stephen P. Clark Center, Dutton encouraged Book to find the money to keep Camillus House’s day center open. This summer, the Trust allocated $200,000 through June 30 as a part of a $4.6 million effort to help service providers left holding the bag after federal funding cuts. Book says the money was always intended to be a short-term stop-gap, and told Dutton the Trust will not be dipping any further into its reserve accounts.

Book told Dutton and others in the room that a better way to aid the Trust in addressing homelessness downtown would be to contact Miami Beach commissioners and tell them to pass a resolution ending their objections to a 1 percent food and beverage tax on all restaurants that aren’t connected to hotels. The tax, levied by the Florida Legislature in 1993, exists countywide, save for Miami Beach, Bal Harbour and Surfside. Book, a prominent lobbyist in Tallahassee, said he has a bill ready to file if he gets the municipalities’ support.

The Trust this year has a $61 million budget, funded largely by $24.5 million in restaurant taxes, and $28.6 million in federal grants.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who sits on the Homeless Trust board, agrees with Book that Miami Beach should embrace the homeless tax and bump restaurant sales tax bills from 9 to 10 percent, even though the city already spends more than $1 million on homeless services. But Beach commissioners have told Book they aren’t keen on burdening businesses still dealing with the hangover of a Zika infestation.

I don’t think we need to throw another log on the fire

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco

“I don’t think we need to throw another log on the fire,” said Commissioner Michael Grieco.

Book estimates the expansion would generate around $7 million a year, but says he has a long way to go on Miami Beach and only a short time to do it.

“Time is running out to get it done this session. If I don’t have a resolution by March 7, opening day, then adios,” he said. “See you next year.”