Still Homeless After All These Years

Touted as a national model, Dade County's ambitious $15-million-per-year plan to combat homelessness has come under the hardest public scrutiny since its inception in 1993. During hearings last month before U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins, old antagonists argued the effectiveness of the plan and its implementation.

The debate arose within the larger context of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in 1988 against the City of Miami. The landmark complaint, known as the Pottinger case after one of the plaintiffs, alleged that Miami's police department violated the civil rights of homeless people by harassing and arresting them simply because they were homeless; attorneys for the city contended the homeless were being arrested for breaking city ordinances as any other citizen would be.

In November 1992, Atkins ruled against Miami, finding that civil rights violations were occurring and ordering the city to establish two "safe zones" where homeless people could live if they had nowhere else to go. The city took the matter to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which stayed Atkins's safe-zone order while the matter was pending.

Meanwhile, a specially appointed Governor's Commission on the Homeless was formed to hammer out a program for getting homeless people off the streets of Dade County. Metro commissioners levied a one percent local restaurant tax specifically to fund the program, whose principal component is to be three 350- to 500-bed "homeless assistance centers." As envisioned in the plan's "continuum of care," homeless people would first be housed in the assistance centers and subsequently referred to appropriate drug or mental-health treatment, job training, and longer-term housing. This past summer the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Dade a prestigious three-year, $15 million grant contingent upon the county's newly formed Homeless Trust meeting several goals for treatment and housing. Construction of the first homeless assistance center has begun near downtown Miami, and the facility is scheduled to open in late summer. Until then, $3.6 million in revenue from the new tax has been allocated to clear out several large homeless encampments -- most of them in Miami -- and place many of the residents in temporary housing or treatment programs.

Aware of Miami's efforts on the homeless front since Atkins first ruled, the appeals court in December sent the Pottinger case back to the judge for an update: to determine what changes had occurred, whether an approach different from the safe zones would be preferable now, and whether the city had substantially complied with Atkins's order by its participation in the countywide homeless plan. Atkins convened three days of evidentiary hearings to help him evaluate the current situation. He will convey his findings to the appeals court in several weeks, after which the appellate panel will rule.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the original lawsuit against Miami, applaud the city's and county's efforts to address homelessness but argue that little progress has been made.

"Our focus is on the fact there are still homeless people on the streets of Miami with no place to go, and homeless people are still being arrested," says Benjamin S. Waxman, president of the ACLU's Miami chapter. Waxman is asking Atkins to consider abandoning the safe-zone order but requiring the city to stop arresting homeless people unconstitutionally.

One problem about which there is general agreement is that the number of homeless on the streets hasn't diminished, and that there are few places for them to go. Both sides peg Miami's homeless population at about 2000, which may be slightly lower than five years ago. But experts point out that the clearing of large encampments has scattered people into smaller, less visible groups, rendering an accurate census virtually impossible. Dr. Pedro J. Greer, Jr., medical director of Camillus Health Concern, says he's seen "a steady increase" in the number of homeless his clinic serves each year. Testifying before Judge Atkins, Greer asserted that last year almost 9000 people, the vast majority of them homeless, were treated at his clinic.

Homeless Trust figures show that more than 600 people have been placed in some type of housing or treatment program since October 1993, with a recidivism rate of about 55 percent A not unusual for large urban areas, according to some experts. And of 2000-plus beds available for Dade County's homeless, only about ten to fifteen percent are open at any given time, according to Sergio Gonzalez, executive director of the Trust. (Most of the beds are located in the City of Miami.) Gonzalez says the Trust will fund 860 more beds in the next few years. In addition, the new homeless assistance center will house 350 on an emergency basis. The real need, according to people who work with the homeless, is for more permanent and transitional housing. Gonzalez says the 860 new beds will help.

The ACLU contends that relocation and placement is often a coercive process when camps are cleared, resulting in inaccurate assessment of mental-health or substance-abuse problems. Such rehabilitation attempts, notes Waxman, are bound to fail and further alienate a troubled population. Two former residents of the recently bulldozed Watson Island encampment submitted affidavits claiming that social workers wrongly evaluated them as alcoholics; one stated he was sent to a substance-abuse program after he'd been told he'd be placed in a boarding home.

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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