Gotham Gazette

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Fighting Homelessness in Miami

Local governments throughout the country are grappling with way to help homeless people and get them into homes and off the streets. One of the more innovative programs is in Miami-Dade County. In this article, two officials with the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust describe the area's efforts to combat homelessness.

About 15 years ago, roughly 8,000 homeless people roamed the streets of Miami-Dade County. Homeless encampments greeted downtown visitors and tourists leaving on cruises through the Port of Miami . Hundreds of homeless people lived under highway overpasses. It was a sad reality.

Community leaders and county residents decided they should and could do something about it. In 1993, Miami-Dade County became the first - and it remains the only -- community in the U.S. where voters approved a food and beverage tax for the specific purpose of providing services to homeless people. Because of the investment, homelessness in Miami-Dade County has been reduced by 87 percent.

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The Special Tax

Here's how it works. A 1 percent tax is added to the bill at establishments with a liquor license that make more than $400,000 per year in revenues. The tax, originally projected to generate $6 million, produces approximately $13 million a year.

In conjunction with the tax, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which is made up of a cross section of community leaders, administers the proceeds, implements a homeless care plan and advocates on behalf of the county for state and federal dollars.

Prior to the establishment of the Homeless Trust and the tax, only 700 homeless beds existed in the area, none of which them permanent housing. Today, over 5,000 emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing beds have been developed, with an additional 1,000 new housing units in the pipeline.

The Homeless Trust and its Community Homeless Plan have been hailed as national models for their progressive approach to addressing homelessness. The one-of-a-kind dedicated tax as a source of funding, as well as the unique public-private partnership, have drawn the attention and funding of government, private agencies and foundations, which has enabled the trust to secure more than $300 million in local, state and federal funding.

Getting Homes for the Homeless

One of the Homeless Trust's most successful initiatives includes outreach for chronically homeless people. Once these people are identified, they are placed, with priority given to the person who has been on the street the longest. This concept builds upon an initiative launched by New York Homeless Commissioner Rob Hess when he served in a similar capacity in Philadelphia. It has reduced Dade County's chronically homeless population on the street by over 50 percent during the last three years.

The trust also implemented a "Housing First model" where homeless families are screened and placed directly from the street or emergency shelter into permanent housing with a rent subsidy that declines over time. Previously, funds were allocated to transitional housing, meaning that families remained housed in temporary settings for up to two years and then were placed into permanent housing. The Homeless Trust took local funds previously utilized for transitional housing for Housing First, serving three times as many people in the process.

Low demand housing models, which have less complicated application processes and fewer requirement than most housing programs, allow chronically homeless clients to be met at their own level. The program places people directly from the street into their own apartments. While abstinence from substances is a goal, it is not a requirement to remain in the program. Client service plans are individualized. Thus, people engage in services as they become ready. People who fail to meet their goals are not discharged as that would just serve to render them homeless again. All of these programs have had tremendous success with nine out of 10 people remaining in permanent housing.

A Homeless Helpline serves as a one-stop program for families facing eviction. Services include rental assistance and legal services. Prevention funding has increased six-fold over the past two years. Miami-Dade County has established additional partnerships and provides referrals for housing counseling services.

Tackling Other Homeless Issues

As a result of these efforts, most food programs on the street, which can result in unsanitary conditions and leave a trail of litter, have stopped. Groups wishing to feed the homeless now use indoor program sites, which have been funded in large part by the Homeless Trust. While it may appear to be a humanitarian effort, Feeding people on the streets serves to enable people's homelessness.

More recently, the trust has tackled a recent outbreak of violence against homeless people. In response to beatings and killings of homeless people by young people in South Florida, it implemented an annual weeklong homeless educational program together with Miami-Dade County Public Schools for grades K-12. The homeless violence prevention program features homeless children talking about their experiences and Miami Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning, who sends a strong message to young people about not doing harm to those who are homeless.

It Takes a Community

The county's success comes from the ongoing public dialogue and leadership, which includes Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, the Board of County Commissioners as well as community, business, educational and religious leaders, homeless service providers and formerly homeless people. The results are easy to see on the county's streets and evident from its success stories.

Two years ago while working on a homeless programs story, Rachel Jones of National Public Radio interviewed J.C., a chronically homeless man in Miami Beach. J.C. sat in his wheelchair wearing a Santa Claus suit. He was barely coherent, often intoxicated and carried vodka bottles in the wheelchair pouch. His dull blue eyes watered, and he cried about his dog, which was killed while he was on the street. His feet were covered with staph infections and flies. Then, the Homeless Trust convinced J.C. to go into the low demand housing programs.

Today, J. C. is still on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. Only instead of sitting in a wheelchair, he rides a bicycle. His blue eyes are now bright. He bursts with pride when he talks about living in his own apartment on the beach, which is paid for with a combination of the food and beverage tax and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. J.C. is still in the low demand program, where he is under the care of a mental health professional. He has gained 30 pounds, has a new dog and has been clean and sober for six months at the time of publication. J.C. serves an example of what a community can accomplish when it bands together to help homeless people.

David Raymond, is executive director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, and Ronald Book is chair.


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