Miami-Dade County

Short on HUD funds, Miami-Dade homeless agency looks to reserves

A Miami-Dade squad heads out for a semi-annual count of the county’s homeless population.
A Miami-Dade squad heads out for a semi-annual count of the county’s homeless population. Miami Herald file 2015

Miami-Dade’s network of homeless services was deemed sub-par by Washington in a recent national competition for federal funds, costing local providers $6 million in grant awards that county officials now may replace with rainy-day reserves from restaurant taxes.

Documents released Friday by the county agency known as the Homeless Trust fill in some of the details behind the May 2 denial of Housing and Urban Development grants that Miami-Dade was counting on to fund about 10 percent of this year’s $59 million budget for homeless services.

The county’s application to HUD received 74 percent of the possible points available, just below the weighted median score of 78 percent for homeless agencies nationwide — the dividing line between agencies that were denied grant money and those that weren’t.

Miami-Dade lost out on the most money for those who slipped below the mid-point, with more than 700 shelter beds in jeopardy from the denied funds, county officials said.

Until Friday, the Homeless Trust had not laid out how it wants to tackle the funding shortfall.

In a memo, Trust director Victoria Mallette outlined “a back-stop emergency one-time plan to use reserves” to close the revenue gap left by HUD.

Mallette’s memo lays out spending $4.6 million in reserves over the next two years to cover any gaps that couldn’t be filled from newly found dollars for the affected programs. Miami-Dade is pursuing new grants from other nonprofits and agencies, and appealing its case with HUD. In an interview, Mallette said the plan described in the memo as being “developed” for the board’s “consideration” was not a recommendation. “It lays out a plan of options for the board,” she said. “I want them to have all the facts.”

Only about half of the Trust’s $9 million rainy-day reserve is needed, Mallette wrote, thanks to pared-down funding requests from some of the nearly two dozen Miami-Dade providers denied HUD grants. Among the providers turned away by HUD: the Inn Transitions domestic-violence shelters, which asked for $900,000; the New Hope CORPS Regeneration drug-rehab center in South Dade ($430,000) and a job-training program by the Jewish Community Services that was seeking $900,000.

Ronald Book, the prominent lobbyist who serves as chairman of the Homeless Trust board, said in a statement that the plan to draw down reserves outlined in Mallette’s memo does not mean the problems with HUD funding have been solved.

“While we have outlined what the maximum amount that our providers are seeking, at this point, those have not been funded. We are continuing to explore alternatives that we hope to have answers to in the short, near future,” he wrote. “If providers want to continue meeting the needs in our community, they will need to begin to reshape their delivery models ... ”

Miami-Dade says it was the biggest loser in HUD’s grant denials, which have made headlines across the country for sharp cuts in funding that providers had been receiving for years. Last year homeless agencies only had to compete for about 2 percent of their existing Washington dollars, but this year the “at-risk” portion was hiked to 15 percent.

The increased competition cost New York funding for 500 shelter beds, eliminated nearly $4 million from Baltimore’s homeless budgets and resulted in denied federal dollars for about half of Florida’s 27 homeless agencies, according to the Mallette memo.

At the heart of the funding fight is HUD’s strategy of moving dollars from costly group-home facilities, such as domestic-violence shelters and drug-treatment centers, and toward rent vouchers and other programs that can place the homeless quickly into “permanent housing” — usually, market-rate apartments. Known as “housing first,” it’s been a controversial move that ended up giving Miami-Dade relatively low marks when forced to compete for millions in HUD money.

“HUD has indicated that Miami-Dade’s shift to [permanent housing] has not been aggressive enough,” Mallette wrote. “Overall, U.S. HUD’s direction has been to permanently house more people, faster.”

A meeting of the 27-member Homeless Trust board scheduled for Friday would have been the first such session since the HUD decision. Book said the board will reconvene in late June. The abrupt cancellation notice Thursday from a Trust staffer sparked at least one protest from a board member, Bob Dickinson. The chairman of the Camillus House shelter system emailed fellow directors with a curt question about the notice coming “this late.”

“Why was it canceled?” Dickinson wrote. He said Friday afternoon that he did not receive a reply. A Trust publicist on Friday blamed “holiday weekend scheduling issues” for the scrapped meeting.

While there was initially talk of shelter residents being forced to vacate and providers being instructed to turn away new cases, county officials have largely played down the notion of an immediate funding crisis at the Homeless Trust.

“We’ve been told it isn’t a problem,” said Amanda Altman Kessler, president of the Junior League of Miami, which owns the Inn Transition shelters. “But we’ve gotten some mixed signals about it.”