Someplace Like Home

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

"All of our partners are here with us," Brown explains. "It's one-stop shopping."

Working in conjunction with the local school district, the HAC offers GED courses, and most clients are required to take a "life skills" program, which teaches them how to manage their personal finances. For parents who land jobs, the HAC also offers free day care--a rare commodity in other corners of the city's cash-strapped nonprofit sector. Similarly, older kids can wait for their parents to come home in an after-school program held in a classroom stocked with brand-new donated computers.

"We didn't want to give a parent a reason to fail," Brown says.

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.

As a general rule, clients are expected to stay at the HAC for no more than a month, while case managers come up with a plan to help them move on. For many, that boils down to drug rehab. Those who agree to sober up are transferred to rehabilitation centers run by the system's vast network of nonprofit partners. Others are moved into similarly owned supportive housing and, whenever possible, regular apartments or houses.

That's the general rule. It is not, however, the way the Miami model always works in practice.

Like many cities, including Dallas, Miami is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis that has more than 64,000 people on its low-income housing waiting list. The city also suffers from a shortage of rehabilitation programs for substance abusers and, more critically, severely mentally ill people who couldn't live independently even if they had a home.

All of this means that the "continuum of care" model is backed up like the kitchen sink.


Outside the Dade County government center, 27 floors below Hilda Fernandez's office, William Tasco sits along the sidewalk. He holds a cardboard sign that says, "homeless: food or $. Can you help?"

Tasco says he's 63 and has been living on Miami's streets for more than a decade. Like the guys outside Camillus House, he refuses to go to the HAC because he thinks they treat homeless people like children. A one-time welder from Boston, Tasco drifted to Miami after he got laid off from a job in a California shipyard. In Miami, he suffered a fall in which he broke his hands and his neck. He hasn't worked since.

"I just gave up, really," says Tasco, who now receives federal disability income. "I got tired of hitting my head against a brick wall."

On the streets, Tasco has gotten to know all the local characters. There are a lot of guys like him--old-timers who couldn't care less about what some caseworker has to say about personal hygiene or balancing a checkbook. Besides, life on the streets for him isn't too bad. The ocean's here, the weather's nice and the cops leave you alone.

"I fear the homeless here more than anyone else. The dope addicts will hurt you if they think you've got money in your pocket," Tasco says. "We got whack-whacks who walk through the street backwards."

To illustrate his point, Tasco points to a man who is strutting like a chicken, weaving erratically around government workers on their lunch break. The man, clearly a whack-whack, isn't wearing any shoes, and his feet are black with filth. Tasco shakes his head. "Would you want to eat lunch next to him?"

Tasco doesn't smell so good himself. He is one of about 4,000 homeless people the Miami model hasn't reached. The figure--roughly the same as Dallas' homeless population--may seem high for a city like Miami, which is closer to Minneapolis in size. To appreciate the gains Miami has made, Fernandez says you have to consider what the city was like in the early 1990s.

"Third World," Fernandez says. "It was totally awful. Little shacks being built out of cardboard and tin. Right in the heart of downtown."

Fernandez is talking about the infamous shantytowns that sprouted up beneath the city's overpasses in the early 1990s. The most notorious was the Mud Flats, so called because it turned into a mud bowl during hurricane season. It was located just around the corner from the government center, under an overpass, and it was home to hundreds of people, rats and disease.

Back then, street feeders made the situation worse. They'd pull up to the shantytowns bearing food, clothing and a message from God. They did a good job keeping bellies full, but they left behind mountains of trash. And the homeless were still homeless.

Today, small groups of people still gather under overpasses and some street feeders still operate. But the shantytowns are long gone, and the panhandlers and squeegee guys who used to occupy seemingly every street corner are now a rare sight. What's more, most of Miami's street feeders are part of the system: Instead of randomly working the streets, they take turns preparing the daily meals inside the HAC's stainless steel kitchens, sparing them the cost of buying food.

Ironically, Fernandez says, the shantytowns were a product of harsh city ordinances designed to control the homeless population. In the late 1980s, Miami cops jailed anyone they saw panhandling or sleeping in the streets, among other outlawed behaviors. The practice attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which in 1988 sued the city for violating the constitutional rights of the homeless.

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