Letters to the Editor

Mat Program new approach to end homelessness

Miami is home to 61 percent of the homeless population in Miami-Dade County. Of these individuals, 37 percent camp out in downtown on the doorsteps of residences and businesses, under bridges, and along major thoroughfares.

As the city commissioner for District 2, which includes the downtown area, I saw the need for an immediate, innovative solution.

In July, I spearheaded an effort that included participation from various stakeholders to donate $700,000 in public and private money to Camillus House to address chronic homelessness.

The Mat Program provides an opportunity for people in danger of violating the Pottinger Agreement to stay on a cushioned mat at Camillus and gain access to medical care, three meals a day, a library, a computer room to find jobs, clothing and a kennel for dogs. They can also transition into a longer stay at a more structured, intensive Camillus House program.

Early figures are showing success. Twenty-five years ago, homelessness was epidemic in South Florida. Thousands of homeless lined the streets of downtown Miami with nowhere to turn and with little help to get them back on their feet. Under the original Pottinger Agreement, the homeless were granted rights to perform acts that let them to further embed themselves on the streets rather than receiving help with recovery.

Since August 2014, the Mat Program has permanently removed more than 100 chronically homeless residents from the streets and, for the first time, they have accessed the services necessary to address their “tri-mortal” condition of substance abuse, mental health and chronic medical conditions.

The fact that the program intentionally reduces many of the barriers to entry — there are no residency requirements, drug tests, minimum stays or age requirements for adults — has made those once limited and skeptical of help more willing to find assistance.

In the first three months of the program, city police placed 488 homeless people in the Mat Program. Of these, 106 have graduated out of the program to a more-structured program at Camillus House or other venues. Some have relocated with family and others have moved into their own apartments.

Currently, the program is housing around 90 individuals, dropping the Homeless Census count, conducted by the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, from 381 to 277 in the downtown Miami area.

The difference between the Mat Program and the traditional shelter bed programs supported by the Homeless Trust can be found in the differing approaches to the issue of chronic homelessness.

The Mat Program allows those living on the street in crisis or on the verge of arrest, to receive same-day help. This addresses immediate public-safety issues and allows the homeless to enter into a continuum of care, without the two-to-four-week wait that is standard with the traditionally funded shelter bed programs.

Just as Jackson Health System provides care to those without health insurance, the Homeless Trust is tasked by the public and county commissioners to address all forms of homelessness.

The Mat Program and the city are showing early indications of success in setting new national standards and benchmarks for addressing chronic homelessness.

We welcome another look at the public/private approach that the Mat Program has taken and ask that more public dollars support this program in the future.

Marc Sarnoff, commissioner, District 2, Miami