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.

Once the legislature authorized the tax, the Dade County Commission had to approve the local levy, along with a plan for spending the revenue. A county task force, co-chaired by Chapman and Commissioner Alex Penelas, put together the homeless plan eventually approved by the commission in late July. The Homeless Trust, called for in the plan, was formed and had its first meeting by the second week in August. The plan is a slightly different version of the governor's commission's blueprint, with more emphasis on providing appropriate housing and services once the homeless people leave the temporary homeless assistance centers. Still, about half of the first year's budget will go to constructing one assistance center and starting work on a second. The plan calls for an additional 1000 to 1500 short-stay (up to 30 days) beds and 750 new transitional (up to nine months) beds to be created in the next three years. With each step in the "continuum of care," from short-term to permanent housing, the costs per person for lodging and services go up.

While the exact amounts to be spent are uncertain, partly because the actual tax revenues are still unknown, the trust's total annual budget is projected to be about $10 million, with $7.5 million coming from the tax and the rest from private fundraising efforts; the tax revenue is projected to drop to $6.2 million after the first year. However, the plan's priorities in its second and third years are subject to change, at the discretion of the trust. For example, says executive director Sergio Gonzalez, a second or third homeless assistance center may not be necessary, in which case that money would go to other types of housing or services.

Families and individuals entering an assistance center would be interviewed to determine their particular problems. Any immediate need, such as medical care or counseling, could be provided by specialists at the center. Confidential information about the homeless would be entered into a computer network called Project Link Up, now being prepared by the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, which could be shared among the county's homeless service providers.

After a stay of no more than 30 days, the homeless person or family would be referred to a smaller "temporary care" facility, most likely an existing nonprofit program offering appropriate services, such as drug abuse or mental health treatment, job training, and family counseling. This stage of the process, according to the plan, would last an average of six to nine months. Then would come the third step, which the plan calls "advanced care," setting up a relatively independent life in an apartment or house. How much money will go to this final and most expensive stage isn't clear. The plan allots a mere $600,000 in the third year for advanced care, with the stipulation that funds will be supplemented by matching state and federal grants, as yet unsecured.

During the lobbying of the legislature and subsequent campaign to get the tax and homeless plan passed by the county commission, advocates for the homeless and many operators of assistance programs privately expressed strong opposition to the proposed 500-bed homeless assistance centers. "We were told all along by Commissioner Penelas and Mr. Chapman and their people that [the plan] was not written in stone, let's just pass the tax, we can work out the details later," says Donna MacDonald, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. "We were misled."

Patricia Regester agrees. Regester is executive director of the Mental Health Association and a member of the board of directors of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. She recalls, "What we heard was, 'Just be quiet while we get the vote from the legislature,' then when it came to the county commission, there would be a payback because we cooperated. But there's never been a payback."

Chapman says everyone has compromised and now it's time to act. "There's no point in more debate," he asserts. "Every issue was settled, often with a split vote, and it's our plan. You can talk only so long."

For Chapman the issue was settled after he took a trip to Orlando last year. That city's $3.3 million homeless "campus," he became convinced, should serve as a model for whatever Dade County eventually came up with. The campus in downtown Orlando features a school, a medical clinic, nine apartments for families, and the nation's only Boys and Girls Club in a homeless shelter. A pavilion with 500 sleeping spaces marked out on the floor has been open 24 hours each day for a year and a half. A 200-bed multipurpose center, also housing counseling offices, adult-education classrooms, and a dining room, opened last month. The campus program also includes an optional rehabilitation and transition segment of several months' duration.

Michael Poole, president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, which operates the campus on less than two million dollars annually, has called it the only full-service shelter operation in the nation. An editorial in the Orlando Sentinel notes that crime has decreased in the area since the campus was built. After almost two years, the coalition claims 80 percent of those completing the program have stayed self-sufficient in permanent housing for at least a year. People who don't sign up for the transition segment must leave the pavilion after 30 days A and they can't come back. But if they return to the street, they'll be picked up by police, who allow no sleeping in public areas or on private property without the consent of the owner.

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