David Abraham remembers a life so low that even spending the night in a homeless shelter was a lucky break out of reach. So he was grateful to sleep on a mat outside.
“It’s difficult,” Abraham said, recalling his time in a gated Camillus House courtyard on a prison-issue mat with dozens of other destitute men and women. “But it’s better than sleeping on the streets.”
Ron Book, head of Miami-Dade’s homeless board, sees it differently. The longtime leader of the county’s homeless efforts sees the mat program at Camillus undermining a proven strategy of drawing a sharp line between street life and the stability that comes with checking into a shelter. From a shelter, the hope is to move a homeless person into an apartment of their own with social services, which advocates say is the only reliable way of removing someone from the streets permanently.
“Anything that makes it easier for the chronic population to remain on the streets is not in our interest,” said Book, one of Florida’s most powerful lobbyists who also serves as volunteer chairman of Miami-Dade’s Homeless Trust, which funds Camillus and other non-profits throughout the county. “I would never buy a mat with a trust dollar. Never, never, never.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The question of where downtown Miami’s homeless population should sleep — and relieve themselves — vaulted onto the national spotlight last month with the debut of the city’s own “poop map.”
The city’s tax-funded Downtown Development Authority used cartoon versions of feces to map 55 places where a clean-up crew said it found human waste streetside. The map accompanied a request for about $1.3 million to the Homeless Trust for portable toilets and extended funding for mats at Camillus.
Homeless advocates saw it as a heartless prop, but downtown leaders said the map captured the reality of a failed housing-first strategy that left Miami with too many people sleeping on the streets.
“Our chronic homeless numbers haven’t changed,” said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who also serves as the DDA’s chairman. “They’re exactly the same.”
In January, Miami-Dade counted 1,007 people living on the streets, and 61 percent were found in Miami itself. The city’s restaurants account for 30 cents of every dollar of a special food-and-beverage tax that funds about 35 percent of the Homeless Trust’s $58 million budget. The January count found 616 people living on the streets in Miami, an 18 percent drop from the last winter peak set in 2006. That same time period saw the countywide population of street dwellers drop 45 percent.
The numbers don’t include people living in emergency shelters, or those enrolled in the long-term housing and support programs that make up about 60 percent of the Homeless Trust’s budget. About 45 percent of the trust’s revenue comes from Washington, and administrators said the federal grants require spending on the long-term programs as part of a national housing-first effort.
A residence usually comes with a case worker and a range of services, from job placement to mental-health counseling to addiction support. Known as supportive housing, it’s designed to break a cycle that sees many of the most troubled homeless residents drift between shelter and street. Advocates argue that pulling dollars from the under-funding housing programs to move someone from a street to an outdoors mat won’t help the homeless population long-term.
“The reality is that the Trust already knows how to end homelessness,” said Constance Collins, president of the Lotus House shelter for women and children. “It lacks the resources to do so.”
Keith Russell, 68, keeps a Bible open in the bottom bunk where he sleeps at the Chapman homeless shelter in Miami. It’s one of about 200 beds in a second-floor men’s dormitory, and Russell recently began his second year there waiting for an apartment of his own. Homeless since his mother died in the 1990s, Russell said someone showed him the kind of tiny unit he would qualify for under the county’s long-term program.
“It has one bedroom,” he said. “With a kitchen and a hall. And a bathroom. Everything.”
Russell’s current bunk also represents valuable real estate in Miami-Dade’s homeless system. The cafeteria provides three meals a day, and he sleeps just one floor above a suite of offices with case workers, health providers and others dedicated to assisting residents toward long-term housing. Often, that involves kick-starting entitlement or disability payments that would give someone the income needed to qualify for federal housing programs.
Abraham lives at Chapman, too, and said he’s been in and out of shelters since 2000. On a recent walk through Chapman’s tidy courtyard, he described countless days on the phone with the county’s referral system to get a slot. “It took me a long time to get here,” he said.
While homeless families get stipends for motel stays, Miami-Dade says it doesn’t have enough money to fund shelter beds for everyone. A single man in Miami currently must wait about 10 days to get a spot in a shelter like Camillus House, according to the trust, although some shelter residents say the wait — which involves calling a hot line every day — can be far longer.
The Homeless Trust funds about 6,500 beds each year. Of those, roughly 25 percent are dedicated to shelters. An occupancy report from 2014 showed that the system placed 6,549 individuals or families in shelter beds alone — about 18 a day.
In its latest annual report, the Trust said it processed about 11,500 individuals or families through its system in 2014. Of the nearly 3,400 who exited a shelter, about 20 percent needed emergency housing again within a year. About 4,600 lived in long-term housing. Of the 750 who left that program, only five wound up back in a shelter, according to the report.
“The number of homeless people who don’t want to be housed is very small,” said Olga Golik, in-house counsel for the Citrus Health Network, a provider of social services and housing. “Nobody chooses to be homeless, given appropriate options.”
A recently amended class-action settlement with Miami requires police to offer a homeless person a place to go before an arrest on charges of public defecation, lying on a sidewalk or other “life-sustaining” acts. Packed shelters essentially tied officers’ hands, but now they can offer a mat as an alternative.
Julian Cato, 53, used his cane to walk into a Miami police station one recent morning to turn himself in. He was guilty of being homeless and said he wanted a mat. “It’s very hard for me to be out there” on the streets, said Cato, whose 380-pound frame is knotted by gouty arthritis.
His resting place that night was the pavement outside Camillus’ walls, but still within its secure gate. He could go inside to watch a movie, use the restrooms, eat and stay the following day to meet with case workers, staff said.
“They’re in despair,” said Officer James Bernat, homeless coordinator for the Miami police. “If we go away, there’s nothing.”
Lately, Bernat says the mat program is taking in “humanitarian” referrals that have nothing to do with the police, including discharged patients from Jackson Memorial Hospital. But city funding for the mat program runs out this summer.
More than 1,000 men and women have come through the program. Camillus said 60 percent stay in the system — either by moving to a bed inside, landing in another shelter, or snagging a slot in a drug-rehab program or long-term housing. Some get jobs with Camillus cleaning the streets of downtown, for which the DDA spends about $400,000 a year.
Trust executives point to federal data showing more discouraging results: Of the 488 mat participants tracked in 2015, fewer than 20 percent left for some sort of long-term program, such as supportive housing or drug rehab. About 45 percent returned to the streets, according to the report. Trust executives question why Miami doesn’t take the money being spent on mats and use it to subsidize more beds.
The dispute between the city and the Homeless Trust is a common rift seen in cities around the country, said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“If you invest too much in the shelter in the front end, you don’t have anything in the back end. If you have invested all in housing, then you have a lot of people in the street because there’s no place to stay while you’re trying to get them into housing,” she said. “Everybody wants to do something about the problem. They’re just kind of disagreeing about the balance of the funding.”
With downtown Miami receiving national coverage for soiled streets, patience for Miami-Dade’s homeless strategy is under pressure. At the first trust meeting since the poop map’s publication, board member Karen Mahar questioned why the Homeless Trust wasn’t taking the lead on the bathroom issue — even if the money had to come from another source.
“I do think this is an issue that needs to be discussed,” said Mahar, a former Camillus staffer. “People need to be able to go to the bathroom.”
San Francisco launched a similar program last summer. The city’s Public Works department pays a company $100,000 yearly for each trailer holding two portable toilets, along with an attendant to stand outside. The city has four in operation in the afternoon and evening, timed to coincide with meal servings at soup kitchens.
Rachel Gordon, communications director for the city’s Public Works department, said the units were designed to be accommodating, with a mirror, soap and a requirement that the attendant tidy up after each use. “People now have the ability to go and do their business with dignity,” she said. “They don’t have to sneak between two cars and squat down.”
Before the toilets went into service, the city received about 25 requests a day to clean human waste from the streets. Now that’s down to about 12. “We look at it as a street-cleaning function,” Gordon said.
In Miami, Book isn’t interested.
“We’re in the business of providing homes,” he told the Trust board on May 22. “Not poop stations.”
The county commission, which oversees the Trust, is scheduled to consider a resolution Tuesday giving Mayor Carlos Gimenez 90 days to issue recommendations on a possible toilet program for downtown Miami. Sarnoff says it’s time to force the Trust to do what it appears unwilling to do.
“It’s not a lack of ability,” he said about the Trust’s budget. “It’s a lack of desire.”