Earlier this month, the Miami Springs City Council voted to approve $140,000 in grocery-store gift cards for residents who have faced financial hardship because of COVID-19.
But some of the city's most vulnerable individuals — the 100 or so homeless people who live in Miami Springs — weren't eligible for the giveaway because recipients were required to provide a photo ID showing an address within the city limits.
City leaders did not respond to a New Times email asking about homeless outreach efforts and an explanation of how a homeless applicant who resides in the city but lacks a photo ID with a Miami Springs address might have been processed.
Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., calls the eligibility rules "despicable." He says homeless citizens pay taxes, vote, and are entitled to the same benefits as others.
"This program should not be dependent on an ID card, which is hard to get during COVID-19," Whitehead tells New Times.
Some 560 gift cards — worth $250 each — will go out before Thanksgiving to be used at Milam's, which is the only supermarket within city limits. Unlike the federal food stamps program, there are no restrictions on card use, so along with turkey and gravy, locals can purchase beer, cigarettes, and — if they're feeling lucky — lottery tickets.
The program will cost $140,000, which is Miami Springs' portion of what Miami-Dade County received via the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Miami Springs is a three-square-mile bedroom community that sits just north of Miami International Airport and has a population of about 14,000. For decades, the city has billed itself as "Mayberry," after the fictional locale of The Andy Griffith Show, a long-running 1960s sitcom set in a small North Carolina town.
Per Census data, the population is 96.5 percent white, the median household income $59,335. (The 2020 federal poverty income threshold is $26,200 for a family of four with two children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
Although the gift-card giveaway was supposed to help needy residents pay for groceries, the city's application was based on the honor system and did not require proof of income, like tax returns or bank statements. Instead, applicants were asked to swear under oath to their answers to an array of questions, including whether they are "underemployed" and how often in the past ten months they didn't have enough money for food.
A public-records request by New Times for copies of all the applications is under review by the city clerk's office.
It's likely many needy residents didn't even know about the gift cards. Official outreach for the giveaway consisted of a short post on the city's website. There's no evidence that city workers canvassed Miami Springs to inform homeless residents about the program.
Officials in Miami Springs have a reputation for being inhospitable to people experiencing homelessness. Last month, Mayor Billy Bain and the city council railed against the homeless residents who have sought emergency refuge at a Red Roof Plus hotel in Miami Springs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Five homeless people in our city is too many," Bain said at a September council meeting. "Legally, we have to figure out a way that this can’t happen again."
Many of the 94 homeless people sheltered at the Red Roof are elderly, disabled, and destitute. From September 2 to October 27, police responded to the shelter 95 times. The bulk of the calls were COVID-related or to assist "sick or injured persons," records show.
Last week, two homeless people who were living at the Red Roof attempted suicide, bringing the city's total number of suicide attempts by the homeless to seven this year.
Miami Springs began distributing the Milam's gift cards to residents on Monday, which marked the start of Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week.
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