The fierce debate over Miami’s sleeping-mat program for the homeless turned personal on Friday, as Miami-Dade Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book lashed out at city leaders — singling out one commissioner in particular.
Book took aim at Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who spearheaded the mat program. The two men have feuded over whether the county homeless agency should help fund 115 outdoor mats, which are part of a covered pavilion at the Camillus House shelter. Sarnoff says it’s only right that the county chip in; Book says outdoor mats encourage the homeless to stay on the street rather than seek social services, and his agency won’t fund something that’s counterproductive.
The mat program, started last year, runs out of money on Aug. 1.
On Friday, Book said Sarnoff has jumped into the homelessness issue without truly understanding it. And the city of Miami, he said, can’t be trusted.
“They’re never OK, they’re never satisfied, because Marc Sarnoff wants to be nothing but right, and he’s wrong about this, he’s wrong about it,” said Book, who in addition to leading the Homeless Trust is also one of Florida’s most powerful lobbyists.
Book’s angry comments, with his arm repeatedly banging on the table, came during a sit-down meeting with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The meeting, which was open to the public, was an attempt by Gimenez to broker a deal on the outdoor mat issue.
As Book ripped into Sarnoff — who wasn’t in attendance — Gimenez tried to calm him.
“He thinks he’s right, you think you’re right,” the mayor said.
“He’s no expert!” responded Book, his voice raised. “He parachutes in, he hasn’t done any research, he hasn’t gone to conferences, he doesn’t care, ’cause he wants to be right. ... His behavior is despicable.”
Book also faulted Miami city leaders in general, saying the city three years ago promised to contribute $700,000 toward additional beds for the homeless, so long as the Homeless Trust matched it with a similar amount.
Book said his agency went ahead and created more than 70 new beds, but the city reneged and never put in its promised share. Book said the experience left him “angry” and “resentful.”
Reached by phone, Sarnoff denied that the city had backed out of a promise to the Homeless Trust. Sarnoff said the city had asked Book to design the 70 or so new homeless beds to comply with a longstanding legal settlement between Miami and the ACLU. Under the terms of that deal, the city can’t force its homeless into beds in shelters that have a religious component or require drug treatment, Sarnoff said.
Sarnoff said the city had made its requirement clear to Book all along, but when it was finally inserted into the legal agreement, “he claimed that we’re changing the deal.”
Regarding Book’s attacks against him personally, Sarnoff said that it only hurts the goal of treating the homeless.
“It’s not about Marc Sarnoff and it’s not about Ron Book,” he said. “It’s about the homeless and where they’re going to sleep tonight.”
Sarnoff’s city commission district includes much of downtown, and he pushed the outdoor mat program amid a building boom that has brought new businesses — and thousands of new residents — to the urban core. According to the Homeless Trust, Miami-Dade’s homeless population of 4,000 is about half what the number was in 1998. And about 3,000 of those homeless are in some form of treatment.
But there is still pressure from downtown business interests to do something about the homeless people who remain. Sarnoff and other city of Miami officials say the outdoor mats at Camillus House provide a location for homeless men and women who want to get off the streets, but are still resistant to entering a traditional shelter.
“The chronic homeless are not prepared to come inside totally the first day,” Sarnoff said. “The first thing you do is you wash their feet; from washing their feet you gain their trust.”
Camillus House CEO Shed Boren said those who sleep on the mats still receive case-management services, medicines, shower facilities, and access to support groups or counselors. The use of mats is a polarizing issue in homeless treatment circles, but Boren said, “we never warehoused people, and quite frankly the term ‘warehouse’ offends me, that we would ever warehouse a human being.”
Sarnoff pitched the outdoor mats program last year as a public-private partnership, and private donations paid for $140,000 of the annual $700,000 cost. But Sarnoff isn’t soliciting private donations for Year Two, because he says the program should be a government responsibility, and downtown businesses are already paying taxes.
While the Homeless Trust has rejected the idea of contributing money to the outdoor mats, it launched a different program on Friday to benefit downtown. A new “strike force” will target the homeless in downtown neighborhoods, with 91 additional beds sets aside for that population.
“We’re not mat believers, we’re bed believers,” Book said as the strike force was approved.