Miami-Dade County

Outdoor homeless shelter in limbo after Miami-Dade commission vote


A game of chicken is afoot between the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, with dozens of homeless men and women stuck in the middle.

Under pressure to sponsor an outdoor emergency shelter serving downtown Miami, county commissioners voted Tuesday to have the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust consider funding for additional homeless programs, and issue a report in 90 days. The vote didn’t name a specific service to fund, but it had everything to do with Miami’s outdoor Camillus House shelter in Overtown, where men and women sleep beneath a pavilion on 115 available mats.

Here’s the problem: Funding for the nearly $1 million program runs out in one month, and the current city-related sponsors may not be willing to extend their commitment while the county reviews the issue.

“There’s a 60-day gap where there’s no funding, so I guess 115 people are going to be on the streets unless somebody comes up with a solution,” said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, one of the mat program’s biggest boosters.

Funded by Miami’s community redevelopment agencies, a nonprofit led by Sarnoff’s wife, and the Downtown Development Authority, the Camillus House mat program opened last August. The program allows Miami police to refer homeless to Camillus House under a class-action settlement that provides special rights to the roughly 600 men and women living on the streets of Miami.

Since then, more than 1,000 homeless have entered into the mat program, which makes available social and medical programs. Camillus House says about 60 percent then enter into permanent housing or move to a bed indoors, continuing on the path to recovery. Downtown residents and business owners have become big supporters.

But the Homeless Trust has refused to support the program, saying that its own numbers show a much smaller success rate and that the program doesn’t fit into the federal “Housing First” model of providing permanent housing above emergency shelters. Most of the Trust’s $58 million budget comes from federal grants, with about 35 percent generated by a local beverage sales tax.

Ron Book, chairman of the Homeless Trust’s board of directors, criticized the mat program Tuesday as a no-bid “warehousing” homeless shelter. While he didn’t object to the county-mandated report, he said the Trust would never fund a mat, and softly urged county commissioners to refrain from “micromanaging” its homeless agency.

“If the city of Miami wants to fund a mat program, God bless ’em,” Book said.

But do they?

Sarnoff said his wife’s nonprofit doesn’t have the cash to fund Camillus House’s mats for the next two months. And Miami commissioners — three of whom attended Tuesday’s hearing, along with the mayor — have voted to request that the county pick up the bill.

“I have to work with the staff to figure out what we need to do, whether to get bridge funding or try to shut it down,” Shed Boren, CEO of Camillus House, said after commissioners voted. “It’s 115 people, and they’re pretty needy people so I don’t know how we’ll handle that.”

As Boren spoke to a reporter, Book passed by, gave him a hug and jokingly claimed he wore a bullet-proof suit jacket to the hearing.

For sure, things have been heated between the Trust, the city and Camillus House over funding for the mat program. The Downtown Development Authority recently promoted a “poop map” to highlight sanitation issues caused by the roughly 400-person homeless population downtown and to shame the Homeless Trust into additional support.

Advocates address Miami-Dade Commission for homeless shelter funding. Video by Walter Michot / Miami Herald

On Tuesday, the DDA drummed up a crowd to attend County Hall. Commissioners heard from police, business owners, residents and a number of current and formerly homeless men and women who said that the mat program is helping them sort out their broken lives. Book has countered that Miami — which has money available —should fund a program the city believes in.

But a resolution is still possible, and the next month — or three — will prove whether one can be worked out. Gimenez and County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who sponsored the vote, said they’re optimistic.

Gimenez said his goal is that “no homeless person in Miami-Dade County sleep on the streets.”

“I don’t know what that’s going to take.”

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