Still Homeless After All These Years

The Pottinger case returned to Judge Atkins's courtroom, and both sides came out firing

As director of the city's Office of Homeless Programs, Livia Garcia-Chamberlain helps coordinate the camp-clearings. Though the Trust, and not her city office, oversees the projects, at the hearings she vouched for the accuracy of the assessments. Trained city outreach workers (all of whom were once homeless) familiarize themselves with encampment residents over time and provide input for county social workers who decide what type of program or housing is appropriate.

Dr. Milton Burglass, a physician who frequently serves as an expert witness, testified that the assessment forms completed by the social workers are inadequate. "None of these documents have anything to do with assessment of drug or alcohol problems," Burglass said, adding that accurate substance-abuse evaluation generally takes 30 to 40 pages of paperwork.

"This isn't the Betty Ford Clinic," retorts Assistant City Attorney Leon Firtel, who heads the city's legal team. "You do the best you can with what you have, and they're trying to do good. If Dr. Burglass doesn't like it, I guess we should pay every [worker] $50,000 just to do assessments."

The conditions of the $15 million grant awarded by HUD include increasing the hours of treatment for people diagnosed to be mentally ill; the Trust will receive $100 a day for each inpatient and $50 per day per outpatient. Waxman worries that could tilt social workers toward admitting a mentally ill patient to get the bigger payment. To this Sergio Gonzalez responds: "We won't be doing that as long as I'm here."

"When you're making progress it's very easy to shoot holes," adds Firtel, clearly irked by the ACLU's refusal to endorse the steps Miami has taken via its participation in the Homeless Trust. "We're not saying the problem's been taken care of, but it's a goal we're working towards, and no one is being kicked out of [homeless encampments] unless we have a place to put them."

Community leader Alvah Chapman, who played a primary role in devising the county's homeless plan and securing support for the innovative restaurant tax, also testified last month about his vision for addressing the local homeless problem. Much of Dade County's approach is modeled after Orlando's large downtown homeless compound, which many claim virtually eliminated the sight of homeless people in public areas. Lawyers for the city say that if Atkins still wants safe zones, they should be phased out to coincide with the startup of Dade's new homeless assistance centers.

Questions remain in Miami and Dade, however, about how many hard-core homeless will take advantage of the extensive network of services being developed, and whether they'll be liable for arrest if they don't want the services or shelter. For the time being, most experts believe there has been little improvement in the lot of Miami's street people.

"In two or three years, [the homeless program] might start having an effect," says Dr. Pedro Greer, who sits on the Homeless Trust. "The reality is that what is going on will stem the tide, but none of us ever pretended the day will come when homelessness doesn't exist.

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