An influx of federal dollars in recent years helped Miami-Dade sharply reduce the number of homeless veterans living on its streets, and the county this summer was added to the dozens of local governments that Washington says can declare victory on that front.
More than 100 veterans remain without a permanent place to live in Miami-Dade, and nearly 30 are residing on the streets or in cars, according to the latest roster from the county’s homeless agency. But a federal alliance of veterans and homeless agencies allows cities and counties to declare a virtual end to homelessness for veterans if they reach certain benchmarks on availability of housing and services.
In July, Miami-Dade won the certification after being turned down by Washington in 2016.
“When homelessness happens ... it should be brief, rare and non-recurring,” Ben Carson, the nation’s housing secretary, said at an event in Doral celebrating the designation. “In spite of all the political disagreement we see in the country today, this is one issue we can all agree on.”
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Various sets of numbers in Miami-Dade show progress when it comes to military veterans not having a place to live. But they also demonstrate that homelessness remains for local veterans.
Figures released for the ceremony at a Doral firehouse showed veterans living on the street hit 142 in 2014, but dropped down to nine last year, according to Miami-Dade’s Homeless Trust, the county agency that assists people experiencing homelessness and oversees federal funds for shelters.
Veterans in homeless shelters dropped at a more modest pace, from 175 to 158. In all, veterans in shelters and on the streets dropped by nearly 50 percent over that four-year period.
A more recent roster of homeless veterans, released by the agency Thursday afternoon, shows 27 veterans living on the streets. That could include living in a car, a park or some other place not meant for human habitation. The roster shows more than half have been issued rental vouchers funded by Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to pay for permanent housing. More than 90 are in homeless shelters, like at Camillus House and the Salvation Army.
With a certain chunk of people experiencing homelessness considered unwilling to seek shelter, housing officials say reaching zero for any category of the population isn’t possible. The U.S. Interagency on Council on Homelessness, which certifies local governments as “ending” veteran homelessness, requires agencies to consistently have housing available when a veteran seeks it.
Miami-Dade joins 63 other local governments, including New Orleans, Houston and Las Vegas, that have already earned the certification. That includes five areas in the Sunshine State, with Miami-Dade the first large metropolitan area in Florida to win the designation.
“Our job is not done until the last individual is off our streets,” said Ron Book, the leading lobbyist who presides over the county’s homeless agency as chairman of the Homeless Trust board.
The annual count of Miami-Dade’s homeless population showed 1,030 people living on the streets in January, the highest since 2008. But the overall number of homeless, including people in shelters, dropped to 3,526, the lowest since at least 1996.
A different set of numbers showed a near doubling of the number of homeless people moved from shelters to permanent housing: from about 4,100 in 2012 to just under 8,000 in 2016, the most recent year available.
Stephanie Berman-Eisenberg, who leads one of the top nonprofits providing permanent homes to veterans in Miami-Dade, credits an increase in housing vouchers reserved for projects that give priority to homeless veterans. Carrfour Supportive Housing, where Berman-Eisenberg is president, has opened a pair of complexes in the last two months alone with about 200 units where veterans are given first dibs on available apartments.
“We like to think we put them over the edge,” Berman-Eisenberg said of Miami-Dade’s recent designation.
She also credited a Veterans Affairs program launched in South Florida during the Obama administration, Operation Sacred Trust, that gives social-services agencies cash to spend largely as they see fit to keep a veteran out of homelessness.
Most of the $4 million Carrfour receives from Sacred Trust goes to subsidize rent, but the money has also been used to cover automobile expenses, utility deposits and other one-time bills that could send someone into a financial crisis.
“It’s very flexible funding,” she said. “That’s prevented veterans from becoming homeless.”
Ashley Esposito, 35, joined the Navy in the summer of 2001. “They sent me to school for two weeks,” she said. “Then they sent me to war.”
She returned home to the Miami area in 2004. Eventually, Esposito saw her life lose traction: a divorce, a flooded apartment, and medical issues that caused seizures. At one point, she and her two children were living out of a car for about a week. Then Carrfour helped house them with the Sacred Trust money. With the help of a federal veterans program, Esposito last year bought a town home in Princeton in South Dade.
“Four bedrooms, three baths,” she said. “It’s mine.”