Helping Miami’s homeless

HOMELESS: Some 1,000 homeless people, like these in an Overtown shelter, are estimated to remain on Miami streets.
HOMELESS: Some 1,000 homeless people, like these in an Overtown shelter, are estimated to remain on Miami streets. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Twenty-two years after its formation, the Homeless Trust’s results in combating homelessness in Miami speak for themselves, nothing short of remarkable — the county’s homeless population has been reduced from an estimated 8,000 people living on the streets in the mid 1990s to approximately 1,000 today.

Now, elected officials and the Homeless Trust are at a crossroads when it comes to choosing the best approach in servicing the remaining homeless population. An overnight mat program instituted by Camillus House last summer is in jeopardy of losing its funding for the next few months because of the lack of consensus on the efficacy of the plan.

The disagreement among the Homeless Trust’s chairman and state wonder-lobbyist, Ron Book, and the Downtown Development Authority Chairman, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, and Camillus House has grown to unworkable levels.

The battle began last summer when Camillus House launched its mat program for the homeless, who reluctantly remain on the streets.

“The logic was simple,” Camillus House and Camillus Health CEO Shed Boren explained. “Many of the remaining homeless population are chronic, they have mental-health issues. The mat program is a way to engage them and hopefully gain their trust and convince them to get into a program.” (In the spirit of full disclosure, Shed Boren and I have collaborated on two film projects.)

The Camillus mat program was instantly torpedoed by Homeless Trust Chair Book, who said at the time and reiterated to me a few days ago that, “The program does nothing more than perpetuate the problem of homelessness.

“Why offer someone a mat when you should be putting them in a bed and into a program?” Book asked.

Another vested stakeholder in this debate is Marc Sarnoff, a Miami commissioner and chairman of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). He recently proposed the “urban” camping prohibition and in recent years led the fight to restrict panhandling and homeless feedings.

Sarnoff was also instrumental in negotiating with the American Civil Liberties Union to modify protections afforded the homeless in a historic 1998 settlement called the Pottinger Agreement. The agreement, brought about by a class-action lawsuit, allowed the homeless to engage in “life-sustaining activities” such as urinating, bathing and lying down in public.

But under the agreement, if they’re caught, police can offer them a choice: shelter or jail. The Camillus mats conveniently meet the requirement for “shelter.”

The Downtown Development Authority also recently put out a detailed diagram it called the “poop map” that highlighted where much of the human waste stockpiles in the downtown area. While the merchants’ concern and frustration with the homeless living on the entrances of their shops and walkways that lead to their offices is understandable, the “poop map” idea was callous and tasteless.

“These people (the DDA) just want the homeless swept off the street at any cost,” Book expressed. “The homeless are an unsightly inconvenience to them.” On this point, Book and I agree.

The issue should not be how we make downtown more visually appealing for developers, but rather what are the best options for the homeless.

I have great respect for Ron Book and his knowledge of and passion for the plight of homeless people.

Where I differ from Book is in his discarding of the Camillus mat program as a strategy, as he puts it, “with very little upside.”

The mat program is perhaps not the best policy as a primary tool to combat homelessness (most parties involved agree).

However, because of the chronic nature of the remaining homeless community, alternative strategies like the mat program should be welcomed and funded because it is not necessarily the most predictable or cost-effective plan, but it is the most humane course of action to take.