Much ink has been spilled in Miami lately about the question of homelessness. Do we need more housing? More bathrooms? More enforcement? Everyone seems to agree that the homeless are a ‘problem’ for downtown — but no one agrees on what to do.
One side, represented by the Homeless Trust, says that Miami’s ‘continuum of care’ is the gold standard for caring for the homeless nationwide and should be supported. The other side, the Downtown Development Authority, says that there are still too many people on the streets who are having a negative economic and social impact on our city.
As a priest at Trinity Cathedral in Downtown Miami, I encounter, work with, and support many of our homeless residents and visitors. Let me give you a ‘peek’ at what the Homeless Trust’s continuum of care feels like to a user.
Yep. That’s it. A hang up. A busy signal. A dial tone.
Let’s say you are a 50-year-old Cuban-American with a small disability pension. Or a mid-40s transwoman who has just been kicked out of her house. Or a mid-30s single mother who served in the Army Reserve.
You’ve lost your housing – due to a change in ownership, a violent or discriminatory landlord, a predatory relationship, or job loss. Someone hands you a card for the ‘Homeless Helpline’ – the ONLY way you can access the Miami Homeless Trust continuum of care.
DOO DAA DEE – we are sorry this number is not available from your area code. You see, the Homeless Hotline only works from a local number. So if you are calling from an out of state number (for example my cell phone number is from Virginia), you’ve already hit a dead end.
But undeterred, you make your way to a Church or a community center and ask to use their phone.
Press one for English. Press 2 if you are at immediate risk for homelessness.
Three rings, maybe four. Then an answer! We are sorry, you have reached a mailbox that has not been set up yet. *click*
Try again? Press one for English. Press 2 if you are at immediate risk for homelessness.
Two rings. Three. Four. Five. An answer – and then *click* again.
I tell everyone who I meet with to call four times. Usually the third time is the charm, if I call with them.
When you finally get an answer, someone dutifully takes all of your information – some of which you may not have – and then says “I’m sorry but there are no beds available. We will put you on the wait list. Please call back every other morning at 8 a.m. to see if a spot has opened up.” Now what kind of wait list is that? A ‘wait-and-call-back’ list?
Without exaggeration, I have called this number more than a hundred times. I have gotten an answer with clients fewer than 25 times. I have exactly once gotten someone housed and off the street the same day. He was a 70-year-old man who was very sick and had an open wound.
The 30-year-old single mom with a 9-year-old boy? “She will have to wait at least 2 weeks.”
The transwoman? “There is a 4 week wait for bed space.”
The 50-year-old Cuban-American? “I’m sorry, there are no beds at this time.”
But what happens if you call a shelter directly? Or you are a woman or a population at risk who shows up in person? “I’m sorry we can’t help you. You have to go through the Homeless Trust. You have to call the hotline.”
What if you try to bypass the hotline to go directly to the services you need – Drug counseling? Rapid Re-Housing Assistance? Job Training? “Have you registered with the Homeless Trust? You need an affidavit proving you are homeless before we can help you. Sorry.” You can’t prove you are homeless – with rare exceptions – until you’ve been accepted into a shelter (until you have been housed!), as nonsensical as that may be.
The steady process of de-humanization and embarrassment that is required to access the ‘continuum of care’ is downright embarrassing. While I am not a fan of laws criminalizing homelessness, it is equally clear that the efforts of the Homeless Trust are not having a desired effect. It is difficult to nearly impossible to access the continuum of care without spending a significant amount of time on the streets or in hotels wasting what little savings one might have or assistance they can get from friends, communities of faith, and other well-intentioned people. You have to hit absolute rock bottom before you can even access the continuum of care that is supposed to lift you back up.
How successful is the continuum of care? That is another topic for another day. But a brief perusal of various agency websites, conversations with clients and interactions with staff suggest that it is equally problematic.
I am against criminalizing homelessness. I think the city commission’s recent effort to criminalize sleeping outside was shameful, particularly when there are not enough beds to house the homeless that we do have. But I am also embarrassed by a homeless service ‘network’ that de-humanizes, belittles, and embarrasses those who need assistance before they can even make it in the door. I am shocked that that same network would refer to access to public restrooms and showers as an ‘impediment’ to getting people off the street. And I am disgusted that we have taken to proverbially slinging sh*t online while forgetting about the people who have to live in it.
While we are busy throwing things at walls to see what sticks, a new national model for eliminating homelessness has emerged. It has been successful in a number of major metropolitan areas including Salt Lake City and Phoenix. It is endorsed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and implementation has begun here in Miami. The ‘Housing First’ model takes the chronically homeless off of the street first, places them in permanent housing, and delivers services to them directly. This system frees up resources at shelters and other resource agencies to deal with those who are temporarily homeless more rapidly and in a more productive manner, while simultaneously reducing the overall cost of homelessness on the county budget by avoiding expensive 911 calls, emergency room visits, and petty theft, crime and yes, sanitation needs in downtown corridors. The Homeless Trust has adopted a timeline for removing all of the chronically homeless from Miami by the end of 2016, but first-hand experience and a cursory review of the annual budget suggests that much will need to change to meet that goal.
Perhaps it is time for the Homeless Trust to acknowledge that the ‘continuum of care’ is an imperfect system and sit down with everyone to map a better way forward.
Father Grey Maggiano is the Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and a Board Member of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless.