Someplace Like Home

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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.

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."

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley

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