‘We Always Need More Help’: Advocates For The Homeless Discuss South Florida’s Greatest Needs

Dec 19, 2019

On Friday, Miami will honor the lives of homeless people lost died this year due to violence, drug use, and health complications at the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. 

Homelessness remains a critical issue across South Florida, and the holidays are often seen as an opportunity for individuals to support those most in need. According to a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), more than 30,000 people experience homelessness on any given day in Florida. These include the elderly, veterans and children. For the homeless, the holidays present tough challenges: finding a place to sleep, food and clothes.

On Sundial, we hosted a panel discussion about the issue of homelessness. Joining us were Wendy Tippett, Director of Human Services in Palm Beach County; Ben Sorensen, former vice mayor and current city commissioner of Fort Lauderdale and Ronald L. Book, chair of the Homeless Trust in Miami-Dade.

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation: 

WLRN: Should local governments be able to criminalize homelessness?

SORENSON: We use the court system not as a penalizing factor in society, but as an uplifting sector. We established the first one in the state of Florida, a community court. What it does is, homeless individuals who are arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors, instead of sending them to the county jail and then getting released without any improvement in their situation of life, they come to community court. 

It's held in the city of Fort Lauderdale, City Commission Chambers. And Broward County chief judges serve as presiding judges. Surrounded in that courtroom, we have service providers that are willing to help and support through addiction recovery, mental health and housing. Then the sentencing is no longer for individuals to go to jail. Instead (our approach is) here's your caseworker, here's where you're going to spend the night, here's the addiction recovery center, here's food and here's your job training.

And there's follow up?

Not only is there follow up, part of this sentencing requires when you graduate from this program--which happens in three to four months--you will come back to the program and serve as a mentor or a volunteer for new individuals that are just coming in.

What's been the greatest challenge in Palm Beach County in trying to tackle the problem of drug addiction?

TIPPETT: Probably one of the biggest crises that we have in our community is lack of inpatient beds. There's not a lot of inpatient beds around that aren't at capacity. So being able to come up with client-centered housing that can deal with issues such as addiction and not making it a criterion being served, you can get into housing and still have an addiction. 

And slowly but surely, hopefully through your caseworker or social worker, you'll be able to access the treatment that's needed. I want to be clear that just because you have an addiction or you're mentally ill does not prohibit you from accessing housing, nor should it. That's the housing first model.

So Mission United (a United Way program for veterans) is coming to Palm Beach. We have been meeting with them and we just finished a one-hundred day challenge to house 100 vets in 100 days.

Ron, your thoughts on the homeless use of bathrooms and not having enough of them?

BOOK: The Florida Department of Health finally reached a breaking point. People are eating all in one place, dropping all their garbage, urinating and defecating. It becomes a health hazard when that happens. We're in the process of moving people out now. We post a notice. We give them 21 days. If they're not gone, law enforcement will do what they need to do. After we have to go in and clean it up, disinfect it, literally dig up dirt, put it into dump trucks, hazardous uniforms and incinerate. That said, at the end of the day, public bathrooms, showers... I'm not a fan of them. First of all, anything that facilitates making it easier to stay on the streets, I'm opposed to it. If somebody else wants to pay for showers and bathrooms, God bless them. I'm not doing that. I've got scarce resources. My job is to end homelessness and not perpetuate it. 

The transcript of this interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Sundial producer Chris Remington and host Luis Hernandez contributed to this hour-long special.