Someplace Like Home

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

The lawsuit set off a disastrous population shift. Before, "There was no tolerance out there," Fernandez says. "The police were just going to arrest you and sweep you off the street, literally. As this lawsuit was working its way through the courts, the city backed off and said, 'We're not going to do anything,' and there was a shift to the other extreme. All of a sudden you had these shantytowns literally grow up overnight."

In 1991, the federal judge in the case delivered the city a sobering blow. In what is now known as the Pottinger ruling, the judge sided with the ACLU and ordered the city to create "safe havens" where the homeless couldn't be busted for being homeless. The ruling established a local precedent that homelessness is not a crime, and it found the city guilty of failing to offer the homeless any real alternatives to jail.

The city appealed and, four long years later, the case was settled. As part of the deal, the city had to cough up $1.5 million, part of which was doled out to homeless people who could demonstrate that they were unfairly arrested. But the case had a more important outcome--call it a truce--that governs the way police and the homeless now interact. Today, a Miami cop can't arrest a homeless person for sleeping in public, for example, without first offering him the option of going to the HAC or some other emergency shelter. In other words, the homeless can now choose between a shelter or jail. And if there are no shelter beds available, as is often the case in Miami, the cops walk away.

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.

Fernandez says the homeless are well aware of their new rights, and many have learned how to manipulate the system with false promises to reform themselves.

"You'll have the ones, even the chronic people, who will flag down the police officer because tonight they don't feel like sleeping on the sidewalk. They know they can tell the officer they want to go in under the Pottinger protocol, and in the morning they'll leave," Fernandez says. "They use the HAC as an overnight shelter. It defeats the purpose."

At the same time, though, the new system gives homeless people, particularly addicts rutted in denial, fewer opportunities to whine and greater exposure to people who are trying to help them. "The more savvy homeless person will say, 'No one's helping me.' You can't make that argument anymore," Fernandez says. "Oh, you need help? OK. There's the outreach team right there waiting for you to go over and get engaged in services."

Nowadays, Fernandez gets a lot of calls from city officials around the country who want to know more about the Pottinger ruling. Often, they try to incorporate shelter-or-jail language into their city ordinances, hoping they'll stand up to legal challenges. They won't, Fernandez says.

"I tell this to cities all the time. If there is a requirement that you have an alternative, then, in fact, the city is going to have to create an alternative."


About the only person in Miami who'll say the Pottinger ruling didn't force the creation of the HAC system is Alvah Chapman, the retired chairman of Knight-Ridder Inc., parent company of the Miami Herald. From Chapman's perspective, that's certainly true: He got involved in the project simply because he believed it was "the right thing to do." Chapman is the type of businessman Dallas seems to lack: a rich, influential man who used his political connections for a high-profile social cause, backed up his words with cash and didn't ask for any personal favors in return.

Back in the early 1990s, Chapman couldn't stomach the site of the shantytowns, and he was frustrated by the disarray among government and nonprofit agencies that tried to assist the homeless. "They fought over the little scraps that came down through the pipeline," he says.

In 1993, former Florida Governor Lawton Chiles tapped Chapman to run a new commission on homelessness. It was charged with a specific political goal: to twist arms in Tallahassee until the state Legislature passed a new bill that authorized a 1-cent sales tax on Miami restaurants. The bill, which Chapman refers to as a "miracle" because it passed in the final moments of the 1993 Legislature, raises some $8 million a year and covers 80 percent of the HAC's operating budget.

Once the tax was in place, Chapman started hitting up Miami's private sector for cash. He kicked things off by tossing in a half-million dollars of his own money. (Chapman and his wife, Betty, have since donated more than a million to the cause.) Soon, the charitable arms of Miami-area corporations began to pony up cash in big chunks--a half-million here, a million there. Since 1993, Miami's private sector has raised more than $23 million as part of the ongoing campaign.

The combination of a dedicated funding source--the tax--and significant private-sector cash wowed the white shirts at HUD, and federal tax dollars started raining down on Miami. Since 1994, Miami has received more than $108 million in HUD money earmarked for homeless services. (Last year in Dallas, by comparison, city officials bungled their application for $5 million in HUD homeless money and wound up getting a paltry $1.8 million.)

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