The American people are a generous lot. In 2017 they gave $410 billion to nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and other charities. Sick children are often the focus of GoFundMe.com appeals, which raise over $650 million a year. A child in need tugs at both the heart strings and the wallet in ways that the homeless do not.
The Pilgrims brought a cold Puritan streak with them when they landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. The concepts of hard work, discipline and frugality are still part of the American DNA four hundred years after William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims became the first dry foot refugees in the Americas.
But the Pilgrims also brought the ideas of blame and shame towards the poor and homeless to our shore. They equated poverty with idleness and moral failing and, all too often, a just punishment handed down by Heaven. Our response to the homeless problem is still tainted by that strain of thinking. For generations, the police were tasked with taking the poor and homeless to the county line, where they would become someone else’s problem.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development 2017 estimated that there were in 32,190 homeless in Florida. Miami-Dade County has The Homeless Trusts. Their annual “Point-In-Time” survey estimated that there are 3,528 homeless in Miami-Dade County. That survey relies on minimally trained volunteers. Such counts also exclude certain kinds of homelessness, like people doubled up or couch surfing or people in hospitals or who are incarcerated.
An analysis released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty suggests that the true number of people experiencing homelessness could be between two and 10 times higher than these official estimates. It’s a big problem that is often living under bridges, squatting in empty buildings, or hiding in the shadows.
To its credit, Miami-Dade County is trying to do something to solve the problem. It was created in 1993 by the Board of County Commissioners to administer part of the proceeds of a one-percent food and beverage tax, to implement the Miami-Dade County Community Homeless Plan, and to serve in an advisory capacity to the Board of County Commissioners on issues involving homelessness.
The Trust isn’t a direct service provider. The 27-member Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust Board oversees contract compliance by non-profits agencies contracted with the County, through the Trust, for the provision of housing and services for homeless persons. It’s piece meal approach to a problem that requires a more comprehensive and strategic solution.
The Homeless Trust, according to the Fiscal Year 2017-18 adopted budget will be getting over $25 million from the local food and beverage tax, almost a million dollars in State grants, and about $32 million from the federal government.
It also will be carrying over $26 million from the year before. The failure of the Homeless Trust to spend all of the money that it takes in isn’t something that is new. In each of the last three budget cycles, the Trust didn’t spend between $23 million and $24 million each year.
It’s not as if the homeless problem has been solved in Miami-Dade County and that every homeless person and family now have a permanent place to live. It would be great if everyone could declare victory and go home — and have a home to go to. But that’s not the case.
All too often the homeless have to jump through hoops before they can get into permanent housing. They have to get clean and sober. They have to take training. They have to pass tests. Only then will they be deemed worthy of help in a way that would make the old Pilgrims proud. But stability and sobriety are hard to achieve when you’re living out on the streets.
Camillus House is one of a number of participants in the Homeless Trust’s funding. But these charities, as well meaning as they may be, are only Band-Aids on hemorrhage.
What we need is something different. Something radical. Something that works.
There is an initiative that is being implemented in other urban areas called Housing First. Their approach is to provide housing to the chronically homeless without the requirement that they pass tests or attend programs or even fill out any forms. If they need and want to go to rehab or detox, these services were provided. If they need and want medical care, it was also provided.
This approach was first tested in Denver with 242 chronically homeless individuals. Five years into the program, 88 percent were still in their apartments and the cost of caring for them in their own homes was less than what it would have cost to take care of them on the streets. Denver found that emergency-service costs alone went down 73 percent for people in the Housing First program, saving $31,545 per person.
And there were additional benefits in Denver. There were reduced wait times at emergency rooms, the police response times improved once the streets were cleared, and, without a large population living on the streets, the urban core was cleaner and more attractive.
In Salt Lake City, they largely solved their chronic homeless problem by building five new apartment complexes. Ninety percent of the money came from the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which gives tax credits to large financial corporations that provide financing for housing authorities or nonprofits to build low-income housing, with the other 10 percent of the cost of building coming from state taxes and charitable organizations.
The tenants pay their rent through federal Section 8 housing vouchers. On-site services, such as counseling, are paid for by state and county general-fund dollars. The result is that Utah’s Housing First program cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per person, about half of the $20,000 it cost to treat and care for homeless people annually on the streets.
To solve this problem, Miami-Dade is going to have to be ready to challenge the status quo. (We need to solve the affordable housing crisis and the problems in existing public housing, too. But those are problems that will be addressed in future columns.)
As my father was fond of telling me when I was growing up, “You can work hard. Or you can work smart.”
It’s time we started working smart on the homeless problem in Miami-Dade County.