By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Off to the right, the brand-new American Airlines arena gleams beneath the morning sun--a jump shot away from the old arena, which sits idle because nobody knows what to do with it. A few blocks away, a yellow building houses the Network Access Point of the Americas, an Internet storage hub, which is part of a new day dawning for trade relations with the city's Latin American partners. To the south, red construction cranes toil like gigantic arms as they piece together a $260 million performing arts center and opera house.
Smack in the middle of all that sits an unsightly obstacle: Camillus House, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter owned and operated by a local Catholic charity. The dank, crumbling building is a magnet for lost souls. On any day, drunks, drug addicts and mentally ill people surround the place. They piss on curbs, pass out beneath awnings and litter the sidewalks with the soiled rags and torn pieces of cardboard they use for shelter.
Their pathetic presence is a constant reminder of human frailty and is the antithesis of the destination reputation the city is trying to build. "What can I tell you?" Fernandez says. "They obviously don't want Camillus downtown."
"They" is the downtown business establishment, which wants to herd the homeless out of downtown and out of sight, but the city is Miami, not Dallas. Fernandez, director of something called the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, stands in the middle of a recurring battle with neighborhood residents and their elected representatives, who scream "not in my back yard" at suggestions they make room for Camillus House and its messy clients.
While Miami has forged a remarkable alliance among business owners, government officials and nonprofits to put a dent in its homeless population, "NIMBYism" continues to be a problem, Fernandez says. "We're not that aligned a community," she adds. "I wish we were."
Miami's efforts in seeking a comprehensive solution to its homeless problem, however, put those of most other major cities to shame. The city is recognized nationwide as a model provider of homeless services, and Dallas is about to hear a lot more about it.
On November 1, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller will host a summit on homelessness at City Hall, and a specific agenda shadows the event: the creation of a new homeless "campus" to be located in the Cedars neighborhood, just south of downtown. Details about where the campus would be built, who would pay for it and how it would operate have yet to emerge, but the general idea is to lure the homeless and the people who support them, namely faith-based shelter operators and street feeders, off downtown streets and into the new facility.
The concept is largely a reaction to complaints from downtown business leaders who argue that the city will never have a vibrant core if it continues to be a place where people can't walk for more than a block without being asked to spare a buck, tripping over sandwich wrappings or having their cars broken into by homeless junkies looking to finance their next fix.
But the campus option is also the product of a loose coalition of people, led by local real estate developer and longtime civic activist Bennett Miller, which believes that Dallas should avoid a police-oriented strategy that simply gives homeless people the bum's rush. Instead, they argue, there is a better way.
The road map begins in Miami.
"Somewhere there's got to be some understanding of how we deal with homeless people and how we can still promote the economic development that you really want," says Bennett Miller, who has been distributing a video of the Miami homeless "model" to Dallas city officials and downtown business owners. "If I were starting, I would have a system that's closer to Miami than it is to Dallas."
The suggestion that riot-prone Miami--the nation's poorest big city, where nearly 30 percent of its citizens live in poverty--could be a model for a city as affluent as Big D may seem laughable. But Miami has become the destination for officials from dozens of municipalities seeking an innovative approach to homelessness.
Last month, the Dallas Observer traveled there to get an up-close look at the program and the people who run it. What we found was a system, however flawed, that has made significant strides in reducing the homeless population. It also benefits from something conspicuously lacking in Dallas: rich, private-sector donors who aren't asking for enormous favors in return, men and women of vision who managed to get local governments, businesses and nonprofits to work together on something big and very expensive.
After years of costly mistakes, Miami operates its homeless services as a single entity, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, bringing together many of the public and private organizations that used to compete. The debate over the relocation of Camillus House is one indication that Miami hasn't solved all of its problems, but in seven years, Miami's homeless count has shrunk by 2,000 from 6,000, and today more than half of the people who enter its network of care are successfully placed in drug treatment centers, transitional apartments and permanent housing. Even in a weak economy, Fernandez says, the homeless population doesn't appear to be growing.
In the coming months, Dallas will begin a new debate over ways to tackle Big D's increasingly visible homeless problem. Miami has an important message for fed-up Dallas residents: Put up or pony up.
In this commercial pocket just north of downtown, the HAC stands out from its rusty neighbors--not because it became the eyesore people feared it would become when it was built in 1995, but because it is an oasis.
With its neatly manicured grounds and sunny buildings, the HAC looks more like a private school than a homeless shelter. Though it is surrounded by businesses still wrapped in razor-wire fences and old houses collapsing beneath the weight of burglar bars, the HAC itself could fit in next door to the Versace palace in trendy South Beach just as easily as it does here.
At 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, a yellow school bus pulls up to the HAC and unloads a gaggle of backpack-toting kids dressed in school uniforms. The children bounce and giggle their way into the place they now call home. The only oddity is that the kids parade past a team of unarmed security guards and clear a metal detector guarding the front door. "Children are so resilient. A couple of days of good nutrition and they bounce back. Our primary objective is to get kids back in school within 72 hours," says Al Brown, the HAC's deputy director. "We concentrate on trying to get people back into the mainstream."
Brown, who's worked here since the HAC opened, is conducting a whirlwind tour, something he's done hundreds of times. One recent visitor was Mel Martinez, the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who called the place "marvelous."
"It gives us a lot of reason to throw our chests out and feel proud about what we're doing here," Brown says.
It's little surprise Martinez was impressed. Behind the front gate, a collection of yellow and blue two-story buildings is clustered around a lush courtyard, which is landscaped with red flowering plants and shaded by columns of palm trees. "It's just like a hotel," Brown says. "Everybody is called Mister, Sir or Ma'am. Everyone is treated with respect. However, we expect the same treatment from them."
The "campus" offers 350 emergency beds arranged barrack-style in three second-floor dormitories--one each for men, women and families. The dorms, each bearing a corporate logo representing its sponsor, are stripped of everything but the bare necessities. Each client gets a locker, complete with padlock, and they share a common bathroom. The dorms also have one "common area" equipped with couches, coffee tables and a single television, hung from the ceiling to diminish its presence. In the family dorm, the only decoration on the wall is a poster that lists "12 alternatives to lashing out at your child."
The sleeping quarters are segregated, but the campus itself is open. As the dinner hour approaches, the atrium is filled with mothers pushing baby carriages, many of them with two or three other children in tow. One mother sits with her three children at a picnic table. Their backpacks are stuffed with books, and their noses are buried in homework. Outside the men's dorm, the male clients while away the remainder of the afternoon by quietly socializing in an open-air lounge.
A former military officer, Brown commands the respect of his clients--particularly the men, who nod but keep their distance as he passes by on yet another publicity crawl. There is a somber aura surrounding the men, but they generally appear relaxed. They are also clean and neatly dressed, most donning HAC-issued outfits of donated jeans, collared shirts and tennis shoes.
The children, however, aren't put off by the towering Brown. "Mister Brown!" exclaims a little girl, whose hair is wrapped meticulously in plastic beads. She races up to Brown and embraces his leg. Her little brother follows behind her, holds up his palm and says, "I'm 4."
When he got here, Brown figured the idea of housing homeless men--many of whom are hard-core addicts with criminal backgrounds--in an open setting with women and children was a front-page headline waiting to happen. But the HAC's clients have proven more willing to go along with the program than he'd guessed.
"I thought there would be drugs. I thought there would be cuttings. I expected the worst. We've never had to call 911 as a result of a weapon being used inside this facility," Brown says. "Now, there is a pecking order here. If somebody lights up a cigarette, we'll know it before the match goes out."
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.)
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.
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."
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."
Miller is still reeling from her failed attempt to introduce a new, stricter panhandling ordinance. Some Dallas residents, including homeless advocate Clora Hogan, viewed the ordinance as a shortsighted attempt to run off the homeless. It was accompanied by a similarly unsuccessful attempt to crack down on the street feeders, whose outreach to the downtown homeless population has been an ongoing source of problems (see "Bum's Rush," September 30, 1999).
"They want to stop the street feeding. They don't want any panhandling. So in other words, if you're a bad boy and committed a sin and became an alcoholic, then you should go away and die," Hogan says.
For now, Hogan says she is encouraged by what appears to be a new attitude emerging from City Hall. But if the city loses its focus, she may pursue an avenue with which the city of Miami is all too familiar: a federal lawsuit. This summer, representatives of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless arrived in Dallas to train Hogan and other homeless advocates how to document instances of police harassment. Despite the failed city ordinance, Hogan claims Dallas police are still "sweeping" the homeless from their downtown haunts and destroying their belongings. "I'm afraid we're making Lew Sterrett our next homeless shelter," Hogan says, referring to the county jail.
Miller says she's "amazed" that her panhandling ordinance was so poorly received. It was aimed only at street-corner panhandlers who, in Miller's mind, have nothing to do with the downtown homeless population. Nonetheless, Miller says she has put the issue on the back burner. "I want to tackle the downtown homeless problem first," Miller says, "and once people realize one has nothing to do with the other, then we'll bring back the panhandling ordinance for consideration."
Like Loza and Hogan, Miller says the city needs a coordinated plan, and whatever that plan winds up being, it will require a financial commitment from the private sector. Miller says she can get it.
"The problem historically with downtown is the city has never had a plan, so there's never been anything for the private sector to put up money for," Miller says. "I know we can get the private sector energized behind this, but City Hall has to take the first step and have a plan and, at various stages, put money up, too.
"I think we can get there."