A group of 17 homeless people along with advocates from Miami social-justice groups stood outside a hotel during a storm this past Friday holding signs saying "I deserve a home" and "Shelter for all now."
The rain-soaked demonstration outside the Red Roof Plus near Miami International Airport was the latest chapter in a rivalry between social-justice nonprofit Dream Defenders and Miami-Dade County's Homeless Trust, with homeless residents caught in the middle.
Dream Defenders co-director Rachel Gilmer tells New Times that the nonprofit brought a group of 17 homeless men and women to the hotel because of the threat of an oncoming tropical storm over the weekend. The Red Roof has a contract with the Homeless Trust to provide beds for the homeless on an emergency basis during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gilmer says the Homeless Trust had previously worked with Dream Defenders to approve three people to go into the hotel earlier in the week, but Dream Defenders later identified additional people who wanted housing. A representative from the Trust told her those people would have to call the agency's toll-free number in order to be placed. Owing to the bad weather, Gilmer wanted to work directly with the Trust to expedite the process.
In a written statement to New Times, Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book said his organization has inclement-weather protocols and that the weekend's local forecasts did not meet the "criteria necessary to trigger emergency responses."
So when Dream Defenders and the nonprofit Dade County Street Response transported a group of homeless people to the hotel Friday, the hotel staff said they could not let them in without approval from the Trust.
That night, members of Dream Defenders protested outside and posted a video of their demonstration to Twitter. Advocates and homeless residents were filmed chanting, "Ron Book has got to go."
This isn't the first time the two organizations have clashed in recent weeks. In April, Dream Defenders representative Dr. Armen Henderson called out the Homeless Trust during a press conference for not allowing him to administer COVID-19 tests to homeless people and for not doing more to help them during the pandemic.
Dream Defenders also slammed the Trust for the destruction of a homeless encampment in Overtown — an accusation Book vehemently denied. City officials confirmed the operation did not involve the Trust.
Book said he had instructed Dream Defenders over the past several weeks on the protocols for placing individuals in the special emergency housing.
According to Book, people displaying symptoms of COVID-19 get first priority for placement into hotels like the Red Roof, followed by people who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or is suspected to have it, then seniors aged 65 or older, and finally those who have underlying medical conditions.
Lena Carleton, a co-founder of the Dade County Street Response who was at the hotel with Dream Defenders on Friday, says that many in the homeless population have pre-existing conditions (including some of the demonstrators). She argues that many of them need immediate shelter.
"We're only as safe and healthy as the least safe and healthy person in our community," Carleton says.
Gilmer says that after her group spent several hours waiting outside the Red Roof and posting to social media, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez got wind of the situation and sent someone over.
"I went down after getting a call from the mayor. The mayor was very concerned and spoke with me and the city manager," says Milton Vickers, director of Miami's Department of Human Services.
Gilmer and Carleton say Vickers showed up around 8 p.m. and started making calls to try to find housing for the homeless, even if it wasn't at the hotel. But by that point, some of the homeless people had already decided to go back to Overtown and sleep on the street rather than wait around.
Vickers says the city and the Trust were able to secure long-term beds at Camillus House for those who stuck around, with the hope of moving them to a hotel later.
In all, six people took the offer, while six opted to stay outdoors. One woman whose case had been approved earlier in the week was able to stay at the Red Roof.
"We've heard a lot from these people about bad experiences and hard stories about living at Camillus House. Many of them do not want to go back and would rather sleep in the street," Gilmer says.
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Book said that despite the messaging from Dream Defenders, the Trust was trying to work cooperatively while upholding its own procedures.
"You can't simply snap your fingers and offer housing. There are staffing, as well as other safety issues, to coordinate, including meals, healthcare, etc. We have been assessing and providing emergency housing for this organization for weeks," Book wrote in his statement. "We have numerous cases where clients they have asked us to place turn down offers for housing, as happened Friday night."
The advocates say the system is just another obstacle that people must overcome to have any hope of finding alternative housing.
"It's just frustrating that in theory, we all have the same goals," says Carleton. "The fact that the resources are there and are inaccessible to the people they're meant for is infuriating."