For years, the Miami Beach Community Church on Lincoln Road has been known for its homeless outreach. Four mornings a week, homeless residents would line up outside and wait to be seated in two shifts for breakfast. But in recent weeks, the church has halted the morning tradition, citing security issues and a decrease in the local homeless population.
The sudden move, which leaves dozens of vulnerable homeless people without a hot meal most days of the week, comes as critics say the city has become increasingly hostile toward homeless residents. Last year, Miami Beach Police began a controversial new practice of forcing drug- and alcohol-addicted homeless people into treatment against their will. This past summer, many homeless people told New Times that workers at the city's outreach office were rude or dismissive and that those seeking help were sometimes locked out of the office during advertised business hours.
Valerie Navarrete, a local advocate for the homeless and a volunteer at the church, says she believes the decision to stop serving breakfast to the homeless is misguided.
"Needless to say, I feel very bad," she says. "I believe it will instigate more begging and more stealing. I don't think it's right, and I'm not going to say it's OK, but some people steal because they're hungry."
Why did the church stop serving meals? Explanations vary. Board member Herb Sosa says the decision was made after a "series of events" where some homeless breakfast-goers presented a danger to church members and other homeless people who came to eat. The group that administered the program — Matthew 25, which gets its name from the well-known Bible verse "For I was hungry and you gave me meat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink" — is evaluating whether to bring back breakfast while exploring other ways to help the homeless, according to Sosa.
"We take the plight of the homeless very seriously, but we also have to take the security and safety of congregants and other people into consideration," he says.
Lead minister Rev. Harold "Hunter" Thompson, who will leave the church this Sunday after five years of service, gives a different explanation, though. He says that over the past year, the number of people who came to breakfast dwindled from about 100 to 120 to only 30. Asked why attendance declined, he says, "I think you've done enough interviews with homeless people to know there are issues here on the Beach making it very unpleasant for the homeless."
Thompson says his departure from the church is unrelated to the breakfast issue, but he implies he might not completely agree with the decision.
"My personal theology is that we should help the least of these," he says. "That is what Christ calls us to do. Sometimes [the homeless] are a really difficult population to work with, but that just means we have to find creative and better ways to do it."
Without the four-day-a-week breakfast, Miami Beach's homeless population is limited in its ability to find a hot meal, Navarrete says. A woman who makes sandwiches for the homeless hands them out at Ocean Drive and 14th Street every Monday, and St. Patrick's Catholic Church distributes bags of food every Saturday. But Navarrete says the Lincoln Road church was the only place serving meals Tuesday through Friday.
Reverend Thompson says the church will continue to serve special meals such as Thanksgiving dinner. And Sosa, the church board member, says homeless residents can still rely on the congregation for help.
"Individuals that come to the church hungry are never turned away," he says. "By all means, our doors are not shut."
As Thompson readies to leave Miami Beach for his native North Carolina, he says he believes the community should show generosity to its most vulnerable residents.
"I don't believe there are throwaway people," he says, "and I think we as a community have an obligation to make sure people do not feel like they're thrown away."