On any given night, the sidewalk along Miami’s Southeast First Street makes for an uncomfortable bed for dozens of men and women with few other places to go. On a late evening in January, the accommodations were even worse than usual.
As more than 100 people tried to sleep, the sound of a screeching animal brayed over a loudspeaker, an apparent attempt to push off the men and women who flock to the area every night. New downtown-area Commissioner Ken Russell, out late Jan. 21 with outreach workers conducting an annual census, said he found the tactic “dehumanizing.”
“You've got to recognize and empathize with businesses struggling with the homeless in front of their businesses and residences downtown,” he said in an interview the following day. “But that frustration can get you to a point where you forget you're dealing with human beings.”
For Russell, his experience confirmed that for all the strides made in expanding homeless services and resources for the neediest among us, Miami and downtown still have work to do. Now, the data compiled that night is mostly confirming that notion.
The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust released its annual “point in time” count Thursday, showing that countywide, the number of men and women on the street appears to have dropped slightly. Overall, the number of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless is up 2 percent, to 4,235. But, while an array of factors can contribute to a single count on one evening, the homeless population in the city of Miami continues a slow and steady climb up to 640 people — the highest count since 2006.
“Overall we're down, and frankly we think there is probably some reason for that. The city of Miami is up, and there probably are some reasons for that,” said Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book, who found the results encouraging. “The bottom line is our unsheltered street population overall is down.”
Miami’s street population is climbing despite a recent surge in resources and money poured into outreach and beds in the city, home to the largest concentration of Miami-Dade’s homeless. Over the past year, the Homeless Trust and city signed a pact creating an additional 50 shelter beds in the city. Meanwhile the Trust, which oversees a roughly $60 million budget, launched what it called Strike Force: Ubran Core, an effort that set aside close to 100 housing units for the homeless in downtown and pulled more than 150 off the street.
Even so, preliminary numbers compiled by the city’s Homeless Assistance Program showed the number of homeless downtown growing from 340 last year to 388 this year. Russell said there were 122 people on Southeast First Street alone.
“Had we not been doing Strike Force Urban Core the number would have almost without question been up in a meaningful way,” said Book. “We think it's a big deal.”
Book said the biggest takeaway from the census — conducted as part of a requirement to remain eligible for federal grants — is that the number of unsheltered homeless men and women is down. On Miami Beach, the number dropped 20 percent. Meanwhile, the number of people in emergency shelters increased by 10 percent.
In addition to learning more about the number of homeless men and women on the street, surveys filled out by more than 1,000 people — boosted by gift cards — helped the Trust to learn more about the health, financial and personal history of the men and women on the street. One interesting nugget: As Miami leaders continue to brace for an expected influx of Cuban immigrants, the Trust found a more than 100 percent increase in undocumented persons, from 26 to 58.