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Does Miami Have the Answer to Homelessness?

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feature-cj-homeless | Photo: A homeless family in Miami, Florida; Joe Raedle/Getty

When Gov. Ron DeSantis needed a place to host a signing ceremony for a bill banning homeless people from sleeping in public, the Florida Republican chose Miami Beach. It wasn’t picked just for its iconic beach and breakers.

Last September, Miami Beach enacted a similar prohibition on public sleeping, which DeSantis praised at the March ceremony as a compassionate measure that would also keep the streets “clean” and “safe.”

It’s been a selling point for South Florida. Republican Miami Mayor Francis Suarez bragged last year, during his brief presidential campaign, that because of the city’s “different approach” to the issue of homelessness, there were only about 600 unsheltered people in Miami. Oh, you can see homeless people here. Plenty of them if you want to, in downtown, near the beaches, and around popular tourist spots like the Wynwood neighborhood. But it’s not like walking through Washington, D.C., or Portland, Oregon, where underpasses and public parks are stuffed with tents.

This is partly a shell game played by local authorities. The Miami Police Department has an ominously named “Homeless Empowerment Assistance Team” (HEAT) that clears tent camps, and the city recently paid a $300,000 settlement to end a lawsuit over improperly trashing homeless people’s property, including an urn containing the ashes of a woman’s mother. There are local and county ordinances to make life tougher for people living on the street, and at one time the county was considering a grotesque proposal to move them onto a small island next to a wastewater treatment plant.

But Miami has managed to avoid large-scale chronic homelessness—and Ron Book, the chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, will tell you with a straight face that if a few things break his way, he will end homelessness altogether in the county in under two years.

In addition to chairing the trust—the government agency that coordinates funding and delivery of homeless aid in the county—Book is a prominent lobbyist and attorney, so he has a lot of practice in the field of confident speaking. But he also says he has the numbers to back his claim up.

In the early 1990s, more than 8,000 people were camping on the streets and sidewalks of Miami-Dade County.

“When I started 32 years ago, we were in a similar place to Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C.,” Book says. “We all had between 8,000 and 11,000 unsheltered individuals.”

According to the trust’s January headcount, there were 1,032 unsheltered people in Miami-Dade County. “Too many,” Book says, “but I don’t have 60,000 unsheltered like they do in San Francisco, and I don’t have 79,000 the way they do in L.A.”

Book’s claim of being able to bring that number down to zero in Miami is stunning—maybe even scoff-worthy—because in so many other parts of the country homelessness seems intractable no matter how much money politicians throw at it. And they’ve thrown a lot.

Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing. Three years later, the city had finished only 1 percent of the promised units. In 2018, California voters passed a $2 billion bondmeasure that promised 20,000 new housing units. CalMatters reported earlier this year that fewer than 2,000 have been finished.

New York City recently spent tens of millions of dollars on “intensive mobile treatment” teams to provide homeless people with medication and connect them with services. So far, the program has delivered lackluster results: The New York Times reported in February that the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene “had not set clear standards to measure its effectiveness despite spending more than $37 million on the initiative last year alone.” In one case, a team lost track of a man prone to psychotic episodes; that man later pushed a 92-year-old woman, causing her to hit her head on a fire hydrant.

Despite all that money, homelessness in the U.S. surged to a record high in 2023, driven by rising rents, tight housing markets, and the end of pandemic-era financial relief and eviction bans. An annual one-night headcount in January 2023 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found more than 650,000 people were living in shelters, tents, or cars—up 12 percent over the previous year.

In response, state legislatures and city councils across the country have passed bills to crack down on homelessness, including putting homeless people in government-run camps. Homeless advocacy groups argue that cities can’t criminalize their way out of the problem, but conservatives and a vocal bloc of disillusioned liberals say they are done tolerating open-air drug use and unsanitary tent camps.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has taken up a case on whether cities can ban homeless people from sleeping in public even if there’s no available shelter space, potentially setting the stage for a huge shift in the civil rights of homeless people in the United States.

“It’s been a series of 5- to 10-year plans at the state, federal, and city level in California to end homelessness, and every time it’s ‘Oh, we just didn’t quite build enough housing’ or ‘We just didn’t quite do enough of this, didn’t quite spend enough money,’” says Devon Kurtz, public safety policy director at the Cicero Institute. “It’s starting to look really, really foolish.”

But is there a way for homeless policy to thread the needle between feckless progressivism and reactionary overcorrection, and does Miami really have a different approach? What has worked in Miami-Dade County has not been the most punitive measures or a one-size-fits-all solution but a flexible variety of aid, a friendly housing market, and rules against police harassment. Unfortunately, the political tide has turned against the latter two.

The Housing-Industrial Complex

If you want to trace how the political backlash to San Francisco’s homelessness problem has moved through the rest of the country, the Cicero Institute is an instructive place to start.

The Cicero Institute was founded by Joe Lonsdale, an ex–San Francisco venture capitalist and co-founder of Palantir Technologies. Since 2021, the institute—now based in Austin, Texas—has been drafting model legislation for statehouses. The goal is to break the current model restricting how homeless grant funding is used across the country and expand the boundaries of how municipal governments can police homelessness. So far it has seen versions of its model bills passed in Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida.

The think tank opposes what it calls the “homeless-industrial complex” and specifically the “Housing First” approach that currently dominates federal and state responses to the problem.

Housing First prioritizes getting people into permanent supportive housing without preconditions on sobriety, treatment, employment, or other factors. It inverted the traditional model of homeless services, which moved people from shelters to transitional programs and treatment and then finally to housing. The idea is that stable housing is the biggest contributor to getting homeless people back on their feet, and everything else will flow easier from there.

Housing First gained momentum under the George W. Bush administration. Since 2009, the federal government has prioritized permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing programs for federal HUD grants. In 2016 California enacted legislation requiring all housing programs to adopt this model, which ruled out common reasons for rejecting applications, including criminal history and lack of rental history. Nor can a tenant be required to be in treatment or evicted for substance abuse in and of itself.

“We know, and studies have shown, that when people have housing that meets their needs and have supportive services that meet their needs, they do really well,” says Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director for the National Homelessness Law Center. “In D.C., 95 percent of people in permanent supportive housing stay housed after their first year. This is an incredible success story. It’s just that we don’t have enough of it.”

The Trump administration originally supported Housing First—former HUD Secretary Ben Carson wrote in 2017 that there was a “mountain of evidence” supporting it—but soured on the policy when progressive cities like Portland and San Francisco became useful punching bags. The bipartisan consensus on Housing First crumbled.

The Cicero Institute, the libertarian Cato Institute, and the conservative Manhattan Institute argue that Housing First has been costly and ineffective in many states, especially California, and that the research supporting it elides worrying data about poor behavioral health outcomes. In D.C., landlords and residents say the city’s supportive housing program has moved people with mental health issues and drug addiction into buildings without providing enough security or support, leading to violence and dysfunction.

What’s beyond dispute is that the funding prioritization for Housing First has led to a predictable squeeze in other types of shelter. In California, for example, the number of transitional housing beds dropped by 50 percent between 2013 and 2019.

“We’re seeing this pattern over and over again where when you over-invest in permanent supportive housing, you actually take resources away from what works for different types of clients,” Kurtz says. “And a lot of what we’re trying to do at Cicero is just say, let’s have a multifaceted approach for a very complex and heterogeneous population.”

But the Cicero Institute’s reasonable critiques of Housing First policy are only an appetizer course for a menu that also includes a large number of measures to create and raise criminal penalties.

Among the Cicero Institute’s proposals is creating drug-free zones around homeless services. The Cicero Institute claims drug-free zones have a “proven record of success” in all 50 states, but in reality they have little deterrence effect, are rarely if ever used to prosecute their intended targets, and blanket whole neighborhoods in enhanced sentencing zones. A 2017 Reason investigation found that 38 percent of Memphis, Tennessee, was covered in drug-free zones. Those zones dramatically increased criminal charges for drug offenders, many of whom were often driving through zones or in private residences, turning petty drug crimes into mandatory minimum sentences that rivaled those for second-degree murder and rape.

Government-Run Tent Camps

The statewide public camping ban that DeSantis signed into law in Miami Beach was also inspired by the Cicero Institute. It bans homeless people from sleeping or camping in public and preempts local governments from allowing it.

One of the bill’s most controversial provisions also requires local governments to construct encampments with adequate sanitation and security to place homeless people if shelters are over capacity.

The bill drew widespread condemnation from homeless advocacy groups. Book takes a more hard-line stance than others in his field; he doesn’t support policies that make it easier for people to live on the streets or maintain an addiction, and he’s cautiously optimistic about the bill. But even he is leery about the camp requirements.

“Our approach has always been a measured outcome—performance, evidence-based solutions to ending homelessness—and encampments don’t do it,” he says.

Gainesville, Florida, opened a government-sanctioned tent camp in 2014. But without a plan to move people out of it, it devolved into violence and drug abuse until it was closed. Government-run tent camps have also been surprisingly expensive in other jurisdictions. The average per-tent operating cost of a safe camping site in San Francisco, Portland, and San Diego was $61,000, $34,000, and $28,750, respectively.

“In all of the aforementioned cities, the yearly costs of renting an average-priced apartment are cheaper than the per-tent costs of a safe camping site,” Reason‘s Christian Britschgi reported.

Still, Book is encouraged that the Florida Legislature is actually paying attention to homelessness for once. And despite the bill’s flaws, he thinks it will force counties and cities to come up with real, concrete plans to address homelessness.

“In 32 years of leading our efforts into homelessness, there has never been a time where there has been legislative leadership and executive branch leadership prepared to even talk about homelessness, let alone do anything,” he says.

Another provision in the law creates a private right of action for Floridians to sue local governments that fail to enforce the ban on public camping. This type of mechanism has appeared in several of Florida’s other recent culture war bills, and critics worry it will lead to a barrage of lawsuits.

“One of two things will happen. The cities and counties will need to arrest everyone on the street—which is currently considered unconstitutional unless there is space in local homeless shelters, which there isn’t, thus leaving the cities and counties vulnerable to civil-rights lawsuits,” Martha Are, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, wrote in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed. “Or the cities and counties will ignore the statute, and so they’ll face lawsuits from residents and businesses upset over the public presence of people who are homeless. In fact, jurisdictions are likely to face both types of lawsuits.”

Although supporters of the Florida law and camping bans in general have framed them as a compassionate measure to direct homeless people to services, the laws ultimately rely on police to enforce them. And police are not a gentle, guiding hand. Their job is to arrest people breaking the law.

From 1992 to 2019, Miami was prohibited under the terms of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit settlement from arresting homeless people for sleeping, bathing, or other

David Peery was homeless in Miami from 2008 to 2018. He was also the class representative for homeless plaintiffs in the resulting consent decree. He says Miami complied with the agreement “sporadically.” Miami police still harassed homeless people downtown. He remembers one instance where police continually bothered him over three nights, with one officer trying to tell him that where he was sleeping was excluded from the terms of the consent decree.

“He didn’t know that I was actually in the federal court litigation, and I knew the agreement backwards and forward,” Peery says. “They did this type of harassment for about three days in a row. And I’m at the point where I’m literally hallucinating from sleep deprivation because I can’t get more than 90 minutes worth of sleep at a time.”

In 2019, a federal judge terminated the consent decree after ruling that “overwhelming evidence supports the finding that City police will not revert to arresting [homeless] individuals.”

Miami Herald review of arrests made after Miami Beach’s public sleeping ban was enacted found Miami Beach police officers asked “only vague questions about whether homeless people want shelter or other assistance before detaining them. Officers do not appear to discuss the availability of beds in specific shelters, offer transportation to the shelters or explain that declining services will result in their immediate arrest.”

Human Whac-a-Mole

Looming over all of this is a pending Supreme Court case that could upend the legal standard for how cities can police 

Late last year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Johnson v. Grants Pass, a case concerning the current precedent in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

A 2021 National Homelessness Law Center study on laws criminalizing homelessness found that 48 states have implemented at least one law prohibiting or restricting the conduct of homeless people. But the 9th Circuit put a limit on those laws in the 2018 case Martin v. City of Boise, ruling that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment to arrest or fine people for sleeping outside if there is no available shelter space.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” a 9th Circuit panel wrote.

Shortly after, several homeless individuals filed a lawsuit challenging a public camping ban in Grants Pass, a small town in southern Oregon. The 9th Circuit blocked Grants Pass from enforcing the ordinance, Grants Pass petitioned the Supreme Court, and now the majority-conservative Court will have a say on whether it’s constitutional to arrest someone for being involuntarily unsheltered.

The city of Grants Pass, the Cicero Institute, and others argue that the 9th Circuit precedent ties the hands of local 

“It just ends up being kind of a mess and I think that it puts too much burden on small towns in particular,” Kurtz says. “It misunderstands the level of involvement that local government has in the construction of shelters, since all of this is being run primarily through the Continuum of Care, which are unelected nonprofits that control all federal money going into a state for homelessness and otherwise keep their finger on the scales of how they respond.”

Continuum of Care is a term of art for local or regional programs, such as the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, that administer homeless assistance funding. Kurtz is correct that small towns have limited control over how that money is spent.

But Rabinowitz argues that Grants Pass is trying to have it both ways, refusing to provide housing and intentionally trying to drive homeless people out through criminalization. He notes that the town’s housing has a 1 percent vacancy rate and precious little shelter space.

“There’s a gospel rescue mission that requires you to go to church services twice a day, work for the mission six hours a day, six days a week, and pay $100 a month to stay there,” Rabinowitz says. “If you’re too old or too sick to meet the work requirements, you can’t stay there at all, which really means people have no other choice.”

Oregon Public Broadcasting reviewed city meeting minutes and found that in 2013, Grants Pass hosted a community roundtable “to identify solutions to the current vagrancy problems.” At the meeting, a “question was raised about [literally] driving repeat offenders out of town and leaving them there.” A city council member “stated the point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road.”

Advocates worry that if the Supreme Court overturns the 9th Circuit precedent, it will lead to an arms race between cities trying to craft the most punitive and unwelcoming anti-homeless laws. “That’s not a solution that actually ends homelessness,” Rabinowitz says. “That’s just a solution to play human Whac-a-Mole.”

Is a Miami Miracle Possible?

So what makes Miami a relative success story? After peaking in the 1990s, homelessness in Miami-Dade began declining over the next decade after several new shelters opened. The county funded a large chunk of its homeless services through a 1 percent tax levied on restaurant checks.

Book also cites the trust’s use of outreach teams to keep contact with people on the street. Every day, 365 days a year, a team of medical professionals drives around Miami-Dade County doing welfare checks on homeless people.

The program was started in 2014 by Lazaro Trueba, a now-retired Miami-Dade Homeless Trust administrator who noticed that people with mental health issues were being picked up by police, temporarily committed to psychiatric hospitals, and then dumped back on the street before their psychotropic medications had time to take effect. Other local nonprofits that coordinate with the trust also run street teams.

Over the 2010s, more low-income and supportive housing projects were finished, creating more space for people to move into permanent housing. Book also says the trust works to identify people at risk of homelessness through eviction or foreclosure. These tools mean there are multiple points of potential intervention, including before someone is homeless.

Did it work? Well, the number of people on the street in Miami-Dade county is roughly the same now as it was in 2015. But that’s still better than many metropolitan areas have been doing.

To finish the job, Book says he needs more housing.

The trust plans to bring the number of homeless down to zero by aggressively expanding the county’s supply of permanent supportive housing and affordable rentals. Book’s been working on identifying buildings suitable for adaptive reuse, such as old hotels and mothballed government facilities. One of the trust’s first targets was a 107-room La Quinta hotel in Cutler Bay that it wanted to convert into affordable rental units for senior citizens and veterans ready to leave shelters. The trust is aiming to purchase the hotel for $14 million. The estimated cost to retrofit the rooms is $650,000, which, according to an April status report from the Miami-Dade mayor, results in a per-unit estimated cost of $136,915. Book says he also wants to experiment with building less-expensive tiny houses.

The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust has a roughly $90 million operating budget, about two-thirds of which is spent on permanent housing. Book is trying to pass two new restaurant taxes to fund the additional housing he says he needs.

But the trust has been running into a problem: Despite the extreme housing shortage, local politicians and residents don’t want any affordable housing near them, nor do they want to see homeless people or acknowledge the relationship between the lack of the former and the prevalence of the latter.

This is a familiar issue: Around the country, cities have used zoning ordinances, code enforcement, and lengthy permitting processes to stop churches and charities from operating shelters and soup kitchens. The Cutler Bay project has been on ice since December due to local opposition.

“I got a county commissioner who previously supported it, and then when 12 people showed up opposing it in her district, she got cold feet on me,” Book says. “I’m fighting for approval to acquire that, but NIMBYism is alive and well.”

There may not be a perfect solution to ending homelessness, but there are some clear principles to reduce the friction for those working to do so.

First, localities should radically liberalize housing policy and ease zoning regulations. There’s a clear correlation between housing supply and homelessness; the states in which housing is most expensive and least abundant are, by and large, the states with the biggest homeless populations. Even if Housing First works, it works only when housing is readily available or easily constructed. In places determined to keep housing supply and density low, like California, Housing First has been wildly expensive for what it delivers.

Second, governments should allow for a broad and flexible range of aid and services, instead of mandating one-size-fits-all solutions. Sometimes a town needs an emergency shelter more than an apartment block, and vice versa. Let motivated problem-solvers figure out the details instead of relying on sclerotic bureaucracies. Let people experiment with tiny houses, with RV hookups, and with other nontraditional housing. Repeal occupancy caps and prohibitions on multifamily housing.

Third, government entities running programs intended to reduce homelessness should audit the performance of the programs in order to avoid the sorts of boondoggles we’ve seen in New York City and Los Angeles. Programs that don’t work should be shut down or reformed. Peery, now the founder and executive director of the Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity, reports that the city’s shelter system is “middling,” still demeaning and inadequate for the city’s chronically homeless, and that there still needs to be more housing stock.

At the same time, local authorities should closely monitor enforcement to ensure that tools like involuntary commitment are not being used inappropriately or inhumanely. The condition of being homeless is not a crime, and it does not negate anyone’s civil rights or necessitate being shunted into a government-run camp on the edge of town.

Book likes to say that he created his own luck in life, as if he can will things into being just by declaring it will be so. “We will reach an end to homelessness in my community,” he promises.

But that will require the political will to create abundant, affordable housing and treat the homeless as individuals with rights, not problems to be swept away.

“No one voluntarily…leaves four walls and a locked door and a roof over their head to live unsheltered on the streets, vulnerable to theft, violence, sleep deprivation, and constant attacks on your privacy,” Peery says. “What sense does that make? Why would anybody subject themselves to that type of constant pain?”

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