Miami Makes Progress on Chronic Homelessness Through Data-Driven Decision Making

Within our efforts to end chronic homelessness in Miami, we try to stay focused on making decisions based on data and best practices – which sometimes mean navigating difficult conversations and choices to get to the outcomes that we’re all seeking. About this time last year, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust was in a heated discussion with Miami-area stakeholders on how to best serve some of our community’s hardest-to-serve. The Trust was being asked to fund a program where individuals experiencing homelessness were placed at night, by police, on sleeping mats in an outdoor, open-air courtyard at a local shelter. The pilot was funded for about a year through a combination of municipal, community redevelopment, and downtown development funds at a cost of about $700,000, without any financial resources from the Homeless Trust.

Stakeholders were asking the Trust to provide continuation funding for the pilot, and the reasons for doing so sounded, on the surface, logical. Isn’t this better than doorways and overpasses? Aren’t these just “entry level” beds? Isn’t this just another housing option? The Trust, the Collaborative Applicant for Miami-Dade County’s Continuum of Care, aggressively and successfully opposed this well-intended, but misguided approach, with a combination of data, research, and political leadership.

Through HMIS, we knew the outcomes of the program did not make a good case for funding.  Fewer than 16% of mat clients transitioned to a higher level of care. We knew the program was not a best practice in the eyes of nationally-recognized organizations, such as HUD and USICH. Research on and conversations with communities that had previously tried mat programs with little success helped bolster our arguments. Lastly, the Chairman of the 27-member Trust Board, a respected businessman and leader on homelessness issues in our community, was adamant that warehousing individuals experiencing homelessness on mats was not the standard of care with which our continuum wanted to be associated. Instead, he used the controversy to further our community’s commitment to permanent housing.

At the end of the day, a compromise emerged. The Homeless Trust launched “Strike Force: Urban Core” committing 96 units of housing to people experiencing chronic homelessness in Downtown Miami. While it wasn’t easy navigating our community’s insanely competitive housing market, individuals who were once regular fixtures on Downtown Miami streets, are now permanently housed. 

Specialized outreach teams equipped with psychiatric nurse practitioners were also formed and funded by the Trust. Called The Lazarus Project, this team of outreach workers and clinicians engage the individuals experiencing homelessness, seven days a week, who have been most resistant to offers of housing and services, providing daily medication for some. The team has had tremendous success in engaging, building trust, and convincing the most mentally ill on our streets to accept housing and services. Lastly, together with downtown stakeholders, we brought 163 emergency beds online and closed the mat program. 

While point-in-time data is encouraging, we know our work is not done. We continue to pride ourselves on being one of the top metropolitan areas in the country with the fewest persons per capita who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, but the approximately 1,000 people remaining on our streets still need access to safe, affordable housing. All sides agree, even one person experiencing homelessness is one too many, and so the community conversation continues on how to finish the job.

Vicki Mallette is Executive Director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust. The Trust organizes and directs the work to end homelessness in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

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