Someplace Like Home

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

For Chapman, persuading businesses to pay to begin fixing the city's homeless problem wasn't that hard. More difficult was the task of bringing together the city's residents, who turned out in droves to oppose construction of the first HAC. Chapman also had to deal with the city's nonprofit social service providers, who believed they should be the ones to determine how all the money should be spent.

Instead, three new agencies became the bones and muscle of the model. The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, a county agency, is the "umbrella" through which all the public tax dollars pass before they drip down to more than 30 formerly independent social service providers. If a nonprofit agency wants any HUD money for a homeless program, it has to go through the trust to get it.

Chapman, meanwhile, founded Community Partnership for Homeless, Inc. or CPHI, a nonprofit organization that operates the HACs and ensures that the private sector continues to cover its 20 percent share of the bill. CPHI's board of directors, a who's who of Miami's business community, is also a natural check that keeps the trust in balance.

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.

Last, there is a "provider's forum" where the network's nonprofit partners can discuss their problems. One partner who isn't shy about airing her complaints is Livia Garcia, director of Miami Homeless Assistance Program, home of the green shirts.

Garcia, who started her outfit in 1991 from inside a car, knows what it takes to get homeless people off the streets: If a chronic addict isn't admitted into rehab within two weeks of entering the HAC, he's sure to relapse. The HACs are nice, Garcia says, but they're too big, and the money they spend on classrooms and life skills courses would be better spent creating new drug rehab centers or supportive housing for the mentally ill.

Despite her criticisms, Garcia believes the overall model is working. "Before, there was nobody. It was just, 'Jail them. Put them on barges. Take them to the Everglades.' I heard it all," Garcia says. "Now, I have someone to say 'over my dead body' to."

Like Fernandez, Chapman says he gets a lot of calls from city officials around the country who want to know how the model works. Few of them comprehend how massive and long-term the project is. As an example, he says he was recently invited to speak at a mayor's conference on homelessness in Baltimore. The mayor didn't bother to show up.

"That told me they were never going to do anything in Baltimore," Chapman says. "People want to help the homeless, but nobody wants to get organized to help the homeless."

Usually, Chapman gives callers as many details as he can about how the Miami model was built and what it takes to operate it. "That usually scares them away," he says. "It's simple, but it takes a commitment that's very, very strong."


Could the Miami model work in Dallas?

Fernandez's experiences so far offer some clues. With the HACs now at 100 percent capacity, Miami has resigned itself to helping those it can help. The bad news is, the people most often left out on the streets are the "chronics"--the mentally ill and addicted homeless people whose severe health problems make them resistant to services and expensive to treat.

In most cities, including Dallas and Miami, the chronically homeless, usually adult men, represent 20 percent of the homeless population and consume the vast majority of homeless resources. In Dallas today, they are the primary reason why the downtown business establishment is barking at City Hall to take action.

Dallas City Councilman John Loza, whose district includes downtown and the Cedars neighborhood, talks about getting hit up by panhandlers virtually every time he visits a friend in a certain downtown building. "I'm not going to try to get around the fact that there are a lot of people concerned about downtown, and that one of their main concerns is that there are a lot of homeless people downtown," he says.

In recent months, Loza has been looking for a place in the Cedars to build a new homeless "campus" that, in theory, would become a single location for homeless services similar to the Miami HAC system. Loza says he hopes to get funding for the new campus placed in the city's elusive bond package, an important beginning to what he says must be a long-term public-private venture. "Everybody is certainly interested in the concept," Loza says.

For now, Loza says there is no timeline for the project, and the plan itself is still in a very early stage. Whether Loza has any political support remains to be seen. Mayor Miller says she is interested in the campus but not ready to commit to anything until after her November 1 summit on homelessness. Still, Miller agrees that the city must find a new approach.

"Right now, [the campus] is just something to talk about," she says. "The solution that has been used in the past--'Oh, we're having an event downtown, let's just shoo 'em out from under the bridge for a couple of days'--is not going to work."

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