Shelter Fallout

After years of doing nothing Dade County now plans to put 500 homeless people under one roof. It won't be in your neighborhood, of course.

The ambitious projects ahead are in many ways realizations of goals long held by the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, for a decade the county's most insistent and active advocate for the homeless. But the coalition, highly critical of some aspects of the county's homeless plan, will play only a marginal role in its implementation. Now that this complex and emotional issue is drawing more attention and money than it ever has before in Dade County, the balance of influence over homeless policy has shifted from the traditional homeless advocates to savvy political and business leaders. Not everyone is happy about that, but few deny that those political and business leaders were largely responsible for directing attention and money to Dade in the first place.

Right now a controversy rages, away from the public eye, over the pros and cons of the proposed shelters and over how the loosely worded plan should be enacted. Proponents promise Dade County's homeless program will shine forth as a national model; opponents warn it's an invitation to disaster.

Many call Dade County's homeless plan a major miracle. For one thing, it's not often a county commission will happily vote to tax its constituents. And a tax to aid the homeless is unprecedented. "This is a very innovative way for a community to raise money to address a serious issue," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington, D.C. "It's a novel approach, and a first as far as I know." The Dade County food and beverage tax, which went into effect October 1, will increase diners' tabs by one percent in restaurants that earn at least $400,000 yearly, although many restaurants will be exempted. Financial planners estimate the tax will raise some $7.5 million annually; after the first year, fifteen percent of the proceeds will be diverted to domestic-violence programs.

Also miraculous is the degree of cooperation among the nineteen people with divergent interests and agendas who hammered out the plan over six combative weeks this past May and June. Instead of turning it all over to the local government to administer, the county commission created a Homeless Trust, an autonomous board with 27 members representing business, religious, governmental, homeless advocacy, and social service interests. County Commissioner Alex Penelas, chairman of the commission's Housing and Homeless Committee, is co-chair of the trust along with attorney L. Grant "Jack" Peeples; Penelas's former chief of staff Sergio Gonzalez, a highly regarded young lawyer with a few months' experience in homeless issues, was hired as the trust's $69,000-per-year executive director. Gonzalez's offices and half of his two-person staff are on loan from the county; his and his administrative assistant's salaries come from the food and beverage tax proceeds.

By early December the trust will have awarded a five-year contract to a nonprofit agency to construct and operate at least one of the three proposed homeless assistance centers. The agency also will have to raise about three million dollars per year from private and public sources, because the tax revenues aren't expected to cover the cost of the entire plan. While the first homeless assistance center is taking shape, some of the private organizations now serving Dade's homeless will split more than three million dollars to expand existing programs.

Nevertheless, many workers in those organizations, who struggle daily to get by on uneven and inadequate grants and donations, have deep misgivings about such an ambitious project predicated on massive shelters. "It bespeaks a denial of reality about homelessness at the grassroots," according to Warner Hutchinson, associate director of the United Protestant Appeal in Miami. "We all sense this and we don't know what to do about it. We're caught wanting the money and at the same time acknowledging the futility of what it's going to accomplish."

Over the past decade, those who work with and study homeless people have learned there's no one thing that puts them on the street. Poverty, job loss, drug and alcohol abuse, medical problems, mental illness, or any combination thereof are the most prevalent reasons. Many cities also have learned the hard way that the initial step of getting the homeless off the streets has little to do with solving the problem of homelessness. For example, the vast armories and seedy hotels into which New York City began moving its homeless during the early Eighties offered shelter but didn't address the causes of homelessness. As the numbers of homeless people grew, the shelters became a self-perpetuating bureaucracy into which the city poured more and more money. Crime, disease, and drug addiction spread, virtually unchecked by overwhelmed social service institutions.

By the late Eighties, homeless shelters were overflowing in New York and in other cities grappling with the problem. And inevitably the thinking about homeless programs began to shift from larger to smaller, from getting as many people as possible off the streets at night to solving the individual problems that made them homeless. Now those who work with the homeless envision a unified process, called a "continuum of care," that addresses an individual's or family's broader needs and ideally leads to an independent life in permanent housing.

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