Miami homeless annex beds trigger downtown concerns
By Catherine Lackner
Miami's Homeless Assistance Center is gearing up to add as many as 55 more beds amid fears that more capacity may exacerbate the city's homeless situation.
The beds will be added at no cost to taxpayers, said Al Brown, the center's interim director and operations manager. Community activist Alvah Chapman raised construction funds privately from an undisclosed source and the Florida East Coast Railway donated land just west of the present shelter.
Groundbreaking on the addition is expected within 90 days and completion in six to eight months, Mr. Brown said.
The beds are being added to relieve the 350-bed shelter of overcrowding that sometimes hamstrings it, meaning street people must remain homeless until a bed becomes available.
According to a county agreement crafted when the homeless program was inaugurated, the Miami center cannot transfer homeless people to the Homeless Assistance Center in South Dade, nor can the south center transfer clients north. That will change, however, with the new beds, Mr. Brown said.
Though preference will always go to street people who live within the city, the center will be able to ship some of them out in exchange for keeping the additional beds operating and for accepting some clients from Miami-Dade.
The crucial question, say insiders, is: will the delicate balancing act work or will the Miami center quickly grow overcrowded?
Optimism struggled with cynicism when the issue was discussed among the directors of the Downtown Development Authority in mid-January.
"They've done a wonderful job, and they're a national role model," said Phil Yaffa, urging fellow board members to support the expansion.
Mr. Yaffa said he was approached by Mr. Chapman and "I agreed to support it. I think they deserve our trust."
"I think we're going to cause a bigger and bigger problem in the City of Miami," said board member Sergio Rok. "I oppose 100% opening this up to Miami-Dade County. The police tell us we don't have enough beds now."
The only real solution, he said, is to have three shelters one downtown, one in South Dade and one in North Dade. That was the plan when the homeless program was initiated, but so far only two centers exist.
"We don't have enough beds because we can't take people south," said Willy Gort, Miami commissioner and authority chairman.
Still, he said, "we have to be careful. We have to make sure the City of Miami homeless have the highest priority" at the center, so that street people from other areas are taken to the other facility if necessary.
"I'm happy to discuss this," said board member Jack Peeples, "but let's look at the demographics."
The very nature of homelessness means it's hard to classify a street person's address, he said. But somehow, the vast majority of the homeless seem to end up in the city, he said, and having more beds "would allow us to take the homeless here to Homestead."
The authority agreed to take no position but discuss the matter at a subsequent meeting.
Meanwhile, Mr. Brown stressed that the Miami homeless shelter is not a warehouse. The center boasts an enviable 56% success rate, he said, meaning that more than half of the 20,000 people who have passed through its doors have "gone on to the next step" rather than going back out onto the streets. Nine community agencies are housed under its roof, a one-stop shop for people looking to rejoin society.
The center requires that clients get health care, enroll in mental health counseling and vocational training, and "map out a plan" to return to independent living. Child care is provided while parents work or take classes.
A new program reunites families when a homeless person has relatives in another city who are willing to take him or her in.
"If they can give us a phone number and we verify that there is someone who will accept that person," Mr. Brown said, "we buy a one-way ticket for them. It's a way to renew their lives."