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Chronic Failure on Miami’s Mean Streets PDF Print E-mail
Written by Frank Rollason - BT Contributor   
March 2012

Two decades of wrongheaded policy have done nothing to help Miami’s homeless

bigstock_Homeless_Man_1089369Back on January 18, Barbara “Bobbie” Ibarra, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, wrote an “Other Views” piece for the Miami Herald. She led off with this: “Our community is in the throes of a homelessness epidemic. All of the shelters in Miami-Dade County are full. Desperate people with no place to spend the night are regularly told to call back later by overburdened outreach workers who have no housing to offer -- sometimes for days on end.”

The gist of her opinion piece was that affordable housing for destitute families is sorely lacking owing to a shortage of funding. The problem, as Ms. Ibarra sees it, is that the current economic downturn has hit lower-income families the hardest and many are on the verge of becoming homeless. She further stated, “As a community, we can no longer ignore their plight.”

The annual count of Miami-Dade’s homeless took place a few days later, beginning at 10:00 p.m. Tuesday (January 24) and ending around 3:00 a.m. the next morning. I have participated in these all-night counts, and I can tell you it is quite an endeavor to locate those who have no desire to be located.

This year’s count was reportedly 840 homeless on the streets of the county, including those currently in temporary shelters -- an increase of 51 people over last year’s count of 789. Ron Book, chairman of the county’s Homeless Trust, opined, “It shouldn’t be a surprise related to the continued unemployment, foreclosure, and economic status -- it’s a spike upward, but it’s not dramatic.” (And the beat goes on…)

The Herald had its own contribution via an editorial on February 1, in which it warned that housing the homeless in sports facilities was a logistical nightmare that would not address root problems. This in response to state legislators who have uncovered a law on the books requiring professional sports facilities that were built with government funds to house the homeless when there are no events taking place.

The Herald called this an “obscure 23-year-old law that few, if any, municipalities have enforced.” In closing, the paper pointed out that the law “does little to offer stability, hope, and a way forward for people fighting their way out of homelessness,” and asked the legislature to “look at ways to help people out of homelessness -- not stunts for headlines.” Did the Herald offer any constructive alternatives? Nope, not a one.

Then on the front page of the paper’s local section on February 7 was an article on how the City of Hollywood’s leaders “have turned their focus to cleaning up Federal Highway, a corridor beset by crime and homelessness.” Notice how “crime” and “homelessness” are linked in such a way to suggest that, if you’re homeless, you’re most likely associated with crime.

This effort, regardless of how misguided it may appear to be, is the result of the failure to address the real issue. You see, it’s not the people in dire straits because of the economic downturn who make up the lion’s share of the recent count of 840. It’s the chronically homeless -- those who are mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts, or in many cases, all three rolled into one.

Back in November of 2007, I penned a column in this publication titled “How to Solve the Homeless Problem: First Admit Failure, Then Vow to Get It Right This Time.” I received a lot of backlash for my insensitivity toward the subject, but the points I made back then are still true today.

When you look at the Website for the Homeless Trust you will find a very succinct mission statement for the organization: To Eliminate Homelessness in Miami-Dade County. Period. End of mission statement. End homelessness -- not mitigate it down to an acceptable level of 1000 or so, more or less, give or take.

Yet I submit to you that, for an organization that has been in existence since 1993, it is no closer to solving the problem of chronic homelessness today than it was 20 years ago.

The reason, as I see it, is that you cannot solve the issue of the chronically homeless by implementing a plan, such as the “Continuum of Care” program, which provides individuals with short-term, mid-term, and long-term care. It is continually touted as the saving grace for our homeless “epidemic,” when it does not address the problems of the chronically homeless. In fact, most of the chronically homeless do not qualify to enter the “Continuum of Care” program because they are unable to comply with the basic requirements.

Back in 1943, a behavioral psychologist by the name of Abraham Maslow published an academic paper that suggested a hierarchy of needs, positing that lower-level needs must be satisfied before reaching for the next level of needs. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the basic needs -- air, water, food, sleep, and excretion -- needed to sustain life.

These needs are exactly what the chronically homeless devote their days to -- their mission statement, if you will. It is what all of us call survival and what most of us take for granted, but for the chronically homeless, it is these fundamentals that drive them day in and day out.

The next level of Maslow’s hierarchy includes shelter and clothing. Beyond these needs are income, conformity, interpersonal dynamics, quality circles, goals, and objectives. I think you get my point. As the old saying goes: “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp!”

This community’s population of chronically homeless desperately needs our help, but the help they are offered falls far short of addressing their needs. We are treating the problem with the wrong cure, folks!

It’s been 20 years and we still have 1000 chronically homeless people on our streets. It’s way past time to recognize that this problem is not going away under our current approach. It’s time to form a task force made up of appropriate professionals to address the problem and fund an effective treatment for this segment of the homeless population.

And that brings us full circle to the Homeless Trust and its mission statement to “Eliminate Homelessness in Miami-Dade County.” The question is whether the trust is up to the task, or will we continue to hear the same old recitations of how wonderful the “Continuum of Care” program is, and how much worse off we would be if it did not exist?


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