Someplace Like Home

Does Miami hold the key to solving Dallas' downtown homeless problem? Maybe, but it's a very expensive key.

For the same reason, the HAC isn't a "walk-in" facility. All of its clients must be referred here by the outreach office, which dispatches two-man teams of formerly homeless people to patrol the city's known haunts in search of potential clients. The outreach office also answers a 1-800 number people can call if they are homeless or about to become homeless.

Once they get here, the clients' names and identifying information are logged into a database. The computer tells employees if the client has checked in before and, if so, why he left. From there, they are sent to the HAC's on-site clinic, where they are screened for communicable diseases, particularly tuberculosis. If a client doesn't need emergency medical attention, he's assigned a bed.

Before they are admitted, the clients must sign a "resident agreement" form. In exchange for a bed, three meals a day and a new set of clothes, the clients must adhere to an array of rules. Chief among them is that they accept case management. The residents aren't drug-tested and are free to leave the campus during the day, but they are expected to be sober and back inside by the 7 p.m. curfew.

The Miami model's centerpiece is the Homeless Assistance Centers, which locals call the HACs. Unlike traditional homeless shelters, which only provide emergency housing, the HACs offer an array of social service programs designed to get the homeless off the streets for good.
Steve Satterwhite
The Miami model's centerpiece is the Homeless Assistance Centers, which locals call the HACs. Unlike traditional homeless shelters, which only provide emergency housing, the HACs offer an array of social service programs designed to get the homeless off the streets for good.
Hilda Fernandez is executive director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which acts as an umbrella agency for the city's network of homeless social services providers.
Steve Satterwhite
Hilda Fernandez is executive director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which acts as an umbrella agency for the city's network of homeless social services providers.

"This is not a penal system, but we have to have some rules in place," Brown says, adding that clients are also assigned various chores. "We want people to get into the ritual of, this is your house, let's keep it clean."

The niggling rules, particularly the curfew, have proven difficult for many homeless people to swallow. The failure to meet curfew--an activity typically associated with falling off the wagon--is the most common reason why some 44 percent of the HAC's clients wind up back on the streets.

A lot of them show up at the Camillus House shelter, the lone eyesore in Hilda Fernandez's aerial vista. That much was clear as a couple of dozen ragged men gathered outside the building's sidewalk on a recent Monday, waiting for the afternoon feeding.

This place resembles sections of downtown Dallas, particularly the blocks surrounding the public library. Across the street from Camillus House, at the now-defunct Sloppy Joe's hotel and restaurant, homeless people are curled up beneath blankets along the sidewalk, their bodies barely distinguishable from the heaps of trash lying about.

"The HAC's a joke. All they want is your name and Social Security number, and they'll throw you out within two days," says Ernest Adams, who has been "steadily" homeless for about a year and panhandles on occasion. "If you're out here on the street, you'll get more people who will bring you food and clothes."

"Ridicule," Wayne Williams adds. "That's all you'll get at the HAC."

While the men complain, another guy starts peeing in the street. Then a wild-looking woman crashes out of the shelter's front door and screams, to no one in particular, "You need to go! I don't want to see you today."

The two men gawk at the woman.

"She needs help," Adams says.

Dressed in neat slacks, a T-shirt and a pair of wing tips, Adams says he just returned to Miami from a job interview in Fort Lauderdale. What he needs, he says, is a job--not case managers and lectures. The same goes for Williams, who is conspicuously dressed in a fresh pair of jeans, collared shirt and new sneakers--the same type of outfit worn by men at the HAC.

A white county car pulls up in front of the men, and two guys holding walkie-talkies hop out. They're dressed in matching green shirts bearing the "Miami Homeless Assistance Program" logo. They are two of the system's outreach workers, and their presence puts Williams and Adams in a defensive mood.

"It's the green shirts," Williams sneers. He begins talking to one of the workers, a muscular dude with a gold earring and frosty expression. Williams tells the man he's talking to a reporter about the HAC, revealing the truth about how bullshit the program is.

"It's not the program," the worker says. "It's what you do with the program."

The worker crosses his arms and stares coolly at Williams until he stops yakking. Then he walks away.

Williams and Adams, both of whom say they were booted from the HAC for curfew violations, share a theory that is often heard on the streets of Miami: With its fancy campus and small army of well-paid case managers, the HAC is just another wasteful bureaucracy that prevents homeless dollars from filtering down into their pockets.

To a certain degree, the men are right. The two HACs, which contain a total of 650 beds, cost $5.4 million a year to run, 80 percent of which comes from a special tax and 20 percent from the private sector. But the clients who choose to stay at the HAC find themselves living in an environment that's tailored to meet their needs: Beneath the campus dormitories lies a network of offices that are home to various state and local agencies, making it easy for clients to get services that would otherwise have them running all over town. They can register their kids in school, apply for disability checks and even obtain free legal aid.

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