Miami Offers Lessons on Handling the Homeless

This week in Washington, officials from across the country are meeting to compare strategies for ending homelessness in their communities. One place they'll be looking at closely is Miami, where officials have been methodically attacking the problem since the early 1990s.

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Morning Edition today begins a series of conversations exploring homelessness. In Washington this week, officials from dozens of cities discuss the problem. That gathering is part of a national campaign to end homelessness.

One place they'll be hearing about is Miami. Miami has become something of a model for helping people to get off the streets. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

When Alex Leone(ph) cruises Miami's South Beach, he's not looking for the hottest nightclub or the best restaurant.

Mr. ALEX LEONE (Miami Homeless Services Division): We're actually going to pull up into a spot about where most of the chronic homeless, the ones that have been out here for a while - I just want to see if they're here because of the rain all day.

JONES: Leone is an outreach specialist for Miami's Homeless Services Division. Every day he drives through alleys, peers into dumpsters or combs the beach.

Today he's in Loomis(ph) Park. Near the public bathroom an elderly man is slumped in a wheelchair. He's wearing a filthy red and white suit with a matching cap.

Mr. JOHN C. BREWER(ph): I'm year-round Santa, honey baby.

JONES: One leg is propped up on a walker. His thin, deeply tanned limbs look like burnished rawhide. Except for the flies buzzing around a few open sores.

Mr. BREWER: I'm a Vietnam Veteran and I got hurt. And I'm homeless.

Mr. LEONE: What's your first name?

Mr. BREWER: John C. Brewer. My name is on every beer can I drink.

JONES: Why are you wearing the Santa Claus suit?

Mr. BREWER: I'm known as year-round Santa, and the kids sit on my lap and I kid with them. And then they give me money. And it keeps me going.

Mr. LEONE: Do have a beer now? Do you have vodka on you now? I know you have something. You're loaded.

Mr. BREWER: Of course I do.

Mr. LEONE: I know you're always loaded.

JONES: Alcoholism led Brewer to the streets. But he says he doesn't want to live in a shelter, because there are too many rules. And people sneak in drugs.

But then, Brewer remembers something Leone talked about a few weeks ago: a new housing program for the city's homeless.

Mr. LEONE: And what did I tell you?

Mr. BREWER: That I had the first apartment coming?

Mr. LEONE: Yes. And that's when it opens up.

Mr. BREWER: All I want to do is find a bed to recoup in and get well. I am sick, Alex.

Mr. LEONE: I know, J.C.

Mr. BREWER: I'm a sick man.

Mr. LEONE: I know.

JONES: Sun and sand and mild winters draw a lot of homeless people to South Florida. To lower those numbers, Miami sent out teams of people like Alex Leone to help get their lives back on track. That strategy was launched by one of Florida's living legends.

Mr. ALBERT CHAPMAN(ph) (Founding Chairman of Community Partnership for Homeless): My name is Albert Chapman. I'm the founding chairman of Community Partnership for Homeless. I've been involved in this program since 1992.

JONES: Chapman retired as chairman of the now defunct Knight Ridder newspaper company in 1989. At 85, he's had a series of small strokes, but he's still active.

He says he took on the homelessness issue after he started noticing something during his drives from his home in Coconut Grove to Miami.

Mr. CHAPMAN: We had 8,000 homeless people on the streets of our city. And the overpasses were just clogged with people, four or five hundred people under there. So I said surely somebody is doing something about this.

JONES: Chapman helped fund a homelessness trust. He's built it up to about $35 million today. Miami also became the first American city to levy a tax for homeless services.

The trust supports substance abuse treatment programs and housing subsidies. And he helped establish two homeless assistance centers where people can find shelter, healthcare and time to regroup.

The strategy is working. The numbers of homeless have dropped from about 8,000 to near 1,700 today. But what to do about people who cycle in and out of shelters, or in and out of courtrooms and jails. Many have serious mental illnesses, and that often gets them in trouble with the law.

Judge STEVEN LEIFMAN (County Judge): We spend millions and millions a year just housing them here.

JONES: County Judge Steven Leifman is on the board of the homelessness trust. Today he leads me on a tour of the Dade County Jail.

Judge LEIFMAN: People with mental illnesses, they are in jail eight times longer than someone without mental illness, at a cost of seven times higher.

JONES: The jail's ninth floor psychiatric ward is overflowing.

Judge LEIFMAN: There's three people in this cell for one. One man is sound asleep on his metal slab with no mattress. There's a man underneath, sound asleep, underneath him. And then there's a man standing, waiting for his turn for a place to sleep.

JONES: It used to be a lot worse. Leifman and the homelessness trust have been able to make some important changes.

Judge LEIFMAN: We have people in the courtroom make an announcement every morning that if they're going to be released and they're homeless to come over here and there'll be an outreach person to meet them. There's a van that picks them up and takes them over to a shelter.

JONES: But too often they don't stay. And shelters are just a temporary solution.

Experts say what's really needed is more affordable housing. That's one of the topics city leaders like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will confront in Washington this week.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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