Someplace Like Home

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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 a city best known for its beaches and warm ocean waters, there is a new attraction in town: the Homeless Assistance Center, centerpiece of the Miami model, which locals simply call the HAC. City officials spend a lot of time showing it off these days. The HAC is one of two "campus" facilities, with the second located on the south side, and it is a one-stop-shopping center where homeless people can seek emergency shelter from the streets and get the social services they need.

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.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley

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