For almost two decades, Miami-Dade Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book says his goal has been to ensure no family spends the night on the streets. But because the county's homeless shelters are often full, as many as 50 families a night have been placed in hotels and motels as a short-term fix.
In recent years, Book says the hotel tab has added up to "a large seven-figure sum of money" as families began staying for longer periods of time. Now, in an attempt to cut spending and get people into permanent housing more quickly, most of that funding is going away. A memo late last month from Miami Beach says the city is losing its annual grant from the Homeless Trust to place families into motel rooms.
"We're not a bottomless pit of dollars, and you've gotta spend your money wisely," Book says. "If I spend and spend and spend on somebody with a temporary placement in a hotel, I'm not moving them along to self-sufficiency."
But Book says those families will still have a place to sleep. Over the past year, the Homeless Trust has acquired more shelter beds, which will allow those families to be moved directly there instead of a motel room. Generally speaking, Book says, it's cheaper to house the homeless in shelters, which he says are more accommodating for children.
"When you run across a family of eight or nine kids in one or two hotel rooms, you've gotta say: Is that a good thing?" Book says. "Or would those kids be better in some type of a shelter because they've got others around them for recreational purposes and school and study purposes? It's a better all-around option, as opposed to keeping them in hotel rooms."
The change is part of a national shift led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In recent years, HUD has yanked funding for transitional housing to push organizations to get homeless people into permanent housing, a philosophy called Housing First.
Although groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness support the new model, some lawmakers — including Florida Rep. Ted Yoho — have criticized the policy for cutting funding to local homeless shelters. Others say Housing First only works in cities with enough affordable housing for organizations to provide to the homeless.
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In Miami, Book says he has struggled to find property owners willing to sell or rent their apartments to the Homeless Trust. Recently, he says the organization was in talks to buy a 90-unit building in North Miami Beach, an acquisition that would have gotten 180 people off the streets. But the deal fell through.
"I've still got vets sitting in a shelter waiting to go. I've got a real problem with the elderly senior citizens that are in shelters for 800 days, 900 days, and in some instances, over 1,000 days," Book says. "We're tolerating it only because I don't have units of housing to rent for them."
As part of the shift away from temporary housing, Miami Beach will lose a $10,000 grant it had been using to place homeless people in hotels, although Book says he will continue to place families in motel rooms if the shelters are at capacity.
"If there is a family on the street at 7 o'clock tonight and it comes to our attention, and I don't have a shelter program to put them in even with the newly procured beds, then a hotel placement will still be necessary," he says. "Our goal is to reduce it and try to eliminate it, but not to the detriment of our policy that it's unacceptable for a family with children to be on the streets at night."