Brother, Can You Spare a One-Dollar County-Issued Food Voucher?

Metro's new program for the homeless aims beyond the quick fix. But does it give short shrift to pressing needs?

Maddock says that Berkeley Cares, now in its third year, attracted community support from the start, and that several local merchants' associations immediately agreed to participate along with the large corporations. The strong beginning inspired other businesses; according to Maddock, since its inception the program has redeemed more than $62,500 in vouchers, which residents are able to purchase at 90 locations, including public libraries and the city clerk's office. (Even so, some advocates for the homeless in Berkeley and in other cities with voucher programs complain that the number and nature of participating merchants are too limited and often present transportation problems, which ghettoizes the homeless, forcing many to shop in higher-priced convenience markets because they lack easy access to the more economical supermarkets.)

Andy Menendez defends the inconvenience of the Miami program, which he insists is intentional. His goal, he emphasizes, is not to provide a few dollars worth of hassle-free basic necessities, but rather to hook up the homeless with services that might get them off the street for good. Requiring that vouchers be cashed in puts the needy in contact with county caseworkers. "My hope is we'll be able to help out with other services they might not be aware of," Menendez says. "This is an outreach tool because it brings people in to give them help." The one-dollar vouchers and the five-dollar minimum were intentional, too, adds Menendez; the program's half-dozen caseworkers would be overwhelmed by a flood of 25-cent IOUs.

Menendez promises a publicity campaign to tout the vouchers, which can be ordered from his office or purchased at the Downtown Development Authority at One Biscayne Tower and at the Miami Coalition for the Homeless at 2800 Biscayne Blvd.

Some local advocates believe the Dade voucher plan, if properly managed, could yield positive results. Says Donna MacDonald, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless: "It's too good an outreach opportunity to waste. We need those intake and referral places where people could come and normally from there get referred into whatever transitional program, job training, maybe even permanent housing." But, MacDonald is quick to add, the infrastructure needed for such referrals doesn't exist; while Dade officials have vowed to invest the county's new food-and-beverage tax in a trio of two-million-dollar homeless assistance centers, the project is still in the planning stage.

Nan Roman, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is more critical of Menendez's strategy. "If no one is redeeming the vouchers, that plan is not working, and they should abandon it," says Roman from the group's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "I think it's worthwhile to try something like this that would bring [the homeless] in, but if it doesn't work, you have to reassess your approach.

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