Miami’s Homeless Crisis: Updates from the leadership

EDITOR’S NOTE: Homelessness by all counts continues on the rise in Miami in 2016. While concentrated in Miami’s urban core, the problem is overflowing into the Brickell community from the north, into 1814 Brickell Park, to under the Rickenbacker, to the rare hammock at Alice Wainwright Park where the homeless have a long-standing encampment.

BHA Vice President Bill Fitch has been closely following the homeless issue, and provided this update in April. However, just days before this issue’s press time, we learned along with Miami service providers of transitional housing for homeless that Miami-Dade County was unsuccessful in obtaining expected federal funding for some 19 programs– an anticipated $5 million is not coming. Reports are that the loss of funding equates to a loss of 700 transitional beds in programs that provide homeless a place to live when they can no longer stay in emergency shelters but haven’t qualified for permanent housing from the Government. Some programs, like the Junior League of Miami-founded Inn Transition, provides housing for women with children escaping domestic violence.

It’s unclear why Miami-Dade didn’t get an award out of the $355 million awarded by HUD for homeless programs across the country. Related services for programs supporting victims of domestic violence, those recovering from addiction, youth, veteran and legal services were also cut, the Herald reported. The news has left the homeless provider community reeling. Appeals are being made by local organizations to the County to cover the tab and keep programs going until federal funding can be restored.

In September 2015 the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County and The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust signed an agreement to mutually address the issue of the unsheltered homeless. Under the agreement, the City would contract for 75 shelter beds in which the police could place homeless individuals from the streets and The Homeless Trust would procure an additional 75 emergency shelter beds for a total of 150 new beds. At the same time, due to lack of funding, the DDA/Camillus House mat program was discontinued after a yearlong pilot.

The mat program had an amazing success rate up until its conclusion. Success is defined as shelter placement, treatment facilitation, permanent housing and return to family. Unsuccessful is loss of follow-up, leave without notice, or a return to the street.

When the mat program ended, approximately 100 homeless were turned back onto the streets. It seems they are still there. Due to the backlog, the new units went to those on the waiting list and the people that lost the mats got nothing.

Leaders Around the Issues

On February 12, 2016, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce held a forum to discuss the challenges and reality of the chronic homeless in Downtown Miami, available resources, and what is being done to date.

The keynote speaker was Judge Steve Leifman. Participants on the panel discussion were: Bobbie Ibarra, Executive Director of Miami Homes for All; Carlos Hernandez-Guzman, President & CEO of Pacific National Bank and Chairman of the Chapman Partnership; Carlos Migoya, President & CEO of Jackson Health System; Dr. Rolando Montoya, Provost of Miami Dade College; and Adrian Mesa, Board Certified Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at Camillus House.

Judge Leifman has been an indefatigable force in his efforts to fix our broken system for those with mental health problems. When the deplorable conditions at the Florida State Hospital caused it to be shut down along with similar institutions across the country, the result was to turn this population out onto the streets as there was nowhere else to place them. These people went from a really terrible hospital to the really horrible streets, into the jails, and back out onto the streets.

Framing the Issues

Experts here say we have two populations of homeless on our streets: the ones who have a serious mental illness; and the ones with drug abuse or both. According to Judge Leifman, we have the largest percentage of people with mental illness living in our community of any urban area in the U.S. These are people that have a diagnosed mental health disorder that is treatable. The critical key is to identify them and divert them from jail to treatment programs.

In Miami-Dade, efforts are underway for Crisis Intervention Team Policing. Forty-six hundred officers have been trained to recognize mental health issues and treat this population differently. Over the past five years, police have responded to more than 48,600 calls and made only 109 arrests.
If arrested and they have a serious mental illness, the homeless are diverted to facilities such as Jackson where they are stabilized over a two-week period. The court has hired seven peer specialists, people who have a mental illness under control, to:

  • meet with this population
  • get them housing
  • get them a treatment plan
  • help them develop relationships

The others are those who have suffered a major disruption/dysfunction in their lives and have nowhere else to go.

Capacity continues to be a major roadblock. There are not enough places to put them. Chapman House states that each and every night, there are two or more Pottinger beds available at their facility. But they report that in 2015 those beds were only occupied 39% of the nights. And yet the police and the Miami Homeless Assistance Program (MHAP) “Green Shirts” report that when they call the homeless shelter hotline, looking for a place to send an individual, they are told no beds are available.

According to Chapman and the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, the hotline is the only way to assign the beds. It is not instantaneous; it can take several days to place someone. That is of no help when the police or Green Shirts find someone on the streets wanting to go to a shelter.

The Camillus House Strike Force (Lazarus Project) interviewed and registered 270 unsheltered homeless during a recent survey. The goal was to house 96. So far, only 25 have been housed. The bottleneck is finding housing to put them in. Our housing inventory is not only small but it is shrinking. Every time a tower crane goes up, affordable homes disappear.

Medical treatment

The most chronic homeless have significant, but treatable mental illnesses. Trust is their biggest problem with being in a shelter. Their experience has involved getting into trouble or fights, having their belongings stolen by other residents, and getting thrown out. Maybe they are hearing voices and feel better on the street, isolated and on their own without other people around.

When they are in a shelter they get their medication. But when they leave, they often stop. The Lazarus Project was geared to identify those individuals, and follow them onto the streets, visiting them regularly and continuing to provide their medications. Nursing staff kept the pills and provided them as scheduled.


Employment is critical to becoming productive. The DDA, in partnership with Camillus House, has offered a training program that prepares the formerly homeless to be part of the Yellow Shirts team, the Downtown Enhancement Team (DET). Currently, there are 36 members on that team who are cleaning downtown, picking up trash and removing graffiti.

The homeless are eligible for a variety of programs, disability payments and federal financial aid for education. The Government gives them $733 a month for disability and they are expected to survive on that. If they are capable of studying, they can enter into vocational/occupational programs or even degree programs. The thing is that they often don’t know about the programs and they don’t know how to apply. It is surprising how many do receive benefits and are still homeless. Of the initial 10 treated in the Lazarus Project, nine qualified for disability payments. Transportation is an even greater problem to solve. They can find affordable housing in Homestead, but then pay more than the unit is worth in monthly costs to get to their job downtown.

A Plan

Work is underway to build a first-of-its-kind facility downtown, planned to open within two years as a one-stop-shop for the most acute population that are going through the system. It will feature:

  • a courtroom
  • receiving facility for law enforcement to drop off individuals
  • crisis stabilization unit
  • short term residential facility
  • primary health care unit
  • day activity program run by people with mental illness
  • a kitchen
  • a supportive employment program
  • will provide psycho-social rehab

The goal will be to help people reintegrate back into the community instead of just kicking them back to the curb after they have completed the program.

Moving Forward

The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, the Chapman Partnership, Camillus House, the Miami DDA and Lotus House, among several shelters and service organizations, have achieved a great deal. But their impact has stalled. The number of homeless on our streets is growing. The 150 new beds are barely a start. Lotus House is working on zoning change approval that will enable them to begin development of Lotus Village, to house 490 women, children, and babies, built with private funding. However, we learned in late April that Commissioner Keon Hardemon asked to defer granting the zoning variances for the Overtown facility. It will come before the City Commission again in May.

More is needed. We must focus on re-establishing a stable health environment that gives the homeless dignity and self-respect. A great deal of lip service is given to the continuum-of-care as the goal for dealing with the homeless. But the continuum does not start with a home. It has to start on the street where the problem exists. Programs like the Lazarus Project, treating the ill where they live if they won’t come into a shelter; the mat program, a safer place to sleep with other support services; the pit-stop toilets so they don’t have to urinate and defecate in public…all start to provide that all important dignity and self respect. Doing one without the others is what creates a problem. And when we consistently only address one issue, the problem grows exponentially. We’re close to seeing that here. We have much to do for our fellow humans. Let’s keep moving together.

From BHA News Spring 2016.