Homelessness presents numerous problems for South Florida

By AUSTEN GREGERSON
School of Communication
University of Miami

On the street corner, in front of convenient stores, basically anywhere one looks, there are seemingly identical faces occupying these spaces.

Homelessness knows no race, sex, age or circumstance. The homeless population in Miami-Dade County is always apparent, but seemingly difficult to put into numbers, by ordinary means of “counting heads” in the street.

The issue of homelessness presents a multitude of problems for any organization to deal with, whether they be governmental or private.

Accounting for the situation causes many issues to be considered: poverty, due to either economic depressions or more standard causes of low-income people; drug abuse, and often times a combination of both present itself with difficulties in finding proper solutions, or at least solutions which can address the majority of those afflicted.

Eddy Ameen, Volunteer for the Miami chapter of Stand Up for Kids, a non-profit that focuses on helping homeless teens, sees problems with how the various organizations work cohesively in solving the problem.

“A lot of the time there’s just zero communication, zero teamwork between all the organizations down here,” Ameen said. “When you have a bunch of different groups working toward the same thing without even being on the same page, how can you expect anything substantial to get done?”

And before implementing out various solutions to homelessness can be applied, the issues of properly quantifying the reality of the problem prove to be cumbersome in their own right. Accounting for a population that has no way of being easily tallied due to their very nature decreases the reliability of any statistic gathered.

From various sources of numbers of homeless people in Miami-Dade County, there were an estimated 4709 individuals living without permanent housing in January of 2006 – be they living on the street or in any of the multiple homeless shelters in the region. That number, regardless of how particularly accurate it is, showed a decline from previous years, where as many as more than 8,000 people had been believed to be without adequate shelter.

Therein lies another problem with how the issue is being addressed: organizations cannot even agree on how the situation has progressed. While Ameen had expressed anger at how he believes the statistics have been “fibbed,” one employee of the Community Partnership for the Homeless, a shelter in Homestead, sees the same situation in an opposite light.

“You look at here, and [Miami] doesn’t have exactly the problem a lot of other big cities do, like New York or Los Angeles,” said Ameen. “And true they’re just bigger places than here, so they would have more numbers, but we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping some of the problem under control.”

Anthony Brown, who is homeless, often must beg along Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Source: Austen Gregerson.

In January of 2010, only 3,832 people had been living either on the street or in shelters throughout Miami-Dade County. This decrease alone may not be entirely surprising when considering the moderate economic turnaround of the time, but what is potentially worrying about the numbers is their seeming immunity to the economic crisis during 2007 and 2008.

The number of homeless did not only not increase from 4,709 at the beginning of 2006, but in fact decreased to 4,392 at the beginning of 2007, and only increase in 2008 to 4,578 – still well below the number recorded before the recession.

This statistic, if taken at face value, seems to run against common logic when considering the massive economic hit this region took during that time. South Florida was affected particularly harshly by the economic recession of 2007, the largest one since the Great Depression of the early 20th century.

The region also ranked among the highest in the country in regards to home foreclosures, so for that increase to not also affect the total population of homeless people in the region is a definite worry for the validity of the data collected. Other metropolitan areas, such as New York City, have seen their numbers of people living in shelters reach record highs due to the crisis (more than 37,000 people in 2009). Such an increase is to be expected, and frankly, data showing the opposite may deservedly come under increased scrutiny.

But that is not to say that Miami-Dade was the only county that recorded fewer people believed to be homeless on a given night. In Los Angeles County, over 88,000 people were regarded as being without a permanent home in 2005, only to have that number plummet to just more than 48,000 in 2009.

These statistics seem to support the possibility of continued progress on the issues of homelessness in Miami-Dade, along with other regions in the country, despite particularly adverse times. And while the problem in Miami is only one-tenth the size of Los Angeles, it does not indicate that the problem is entirely nonexistent.

The areas where homeless tend to concentrate themselves into tend to ironically also be where some of the most affluent residents of the city live. Both Downtown Miami and Miami Beach are areas where you are most likely to come across a resident of the streets, not just in the fringes of Miami’s worse neighborhoods.

Another man, Anthony Brown, interviewed while panhandling on Coral Gables high-end shopping district of Miracle Mile, has seen no such government aid. When asked if any government organizations have done specifically for him, he curtly responded “No”. According to him, the places where he has received the greatest amount of help are from private organizations, such as the Camillus House and the Salvation Army, and from passersby who offer some change for his empty coffee cup.

“I usually get a positive reaction, people are pretty nice,” Brown said. “I mean, it’s all in the way you talk to people. I tell them what my problem’s are, no use in lying to them.”

And even so, those options are not always viable for those most adversely affected. There is a $100 per week rent for the homeless gaining income to stay at the Salvation Army, or $10 per day if that money is not available. This is one reason for people like Anthony to beg on the street, so they can afford the nightly stay in the shelter.

Furthermore, not just the extremes are where the homeless live. Coral Gables, Homestead, and South Miami all have their own sizeable populations of those living without permanent housing.

But in the end, where the homeless problem is most obvious is not with what numbers are gathered or which organization collects them, it is with the people themselves.

“Barry,” a homeless man who frequently asks for spare change at the intersection of Bird Road and U.S. 1, shared his own insight to the problem.

“It’s very humbling. It’s sad too, cause I think a lot of us chose to be that way [homeless]. They sit around and do nothing all day, but there are some of us that want something better from life,” he said.

A homeless man rests in a public area in Coral Gables. Source: Austen Gregerson.

Adding to the dire nature already present in addressing the homeless problems plaguing the greater Miami area is the alarming rates of children homeless.

While some of these children are parts of traditional family units that are without housing, many of them find themselves on the streets alone, and are particularly at risk to engage in illegal and extremely dangerous activities as a means to survive on their own.

Prostitution and drug trafficking are among the most common illicit activities homeless teens participate in, with the average age of a prostitute in Miami being only 14 years old.

Statistics also indicate that 50 percent of all homeless teens turn to prostitution within the first 48 hours, well before most organizations would be able to come into contact with them. There are unique challenges presented by homeless teens, as they tend to be less receptive and downright distrustful of adults trying to help them.

So, as they are both hard to locate initially and even more difficult still to have them accept the help, this quandary remains all the more difficult.

Complete eradication of the problems at the root of homelessness may be the ideal objective of homeless shelters and organizations, but this goal is realistically unattainable on a grand scale.

The causes of homelessness are too vast and varied to be remedied by one, or even a simple combination of a few different strategies, so the limiting of the spread of homelessness and its effects remain the most common means of attacking the issue. If the statistics gathered by both governmental and non-profit organizations in regards to the homeless populations in Miami-Dade are indeed accurate, then the numbers shown indicate a clear lessening of the problem over the past decade.

But there are many factors, including the possibility of families in foreclosed homes squatting in abandoned houses or a lack in quality of accurately identifying the homeless population, which suggest that the numbers are entirely what they claim to be. That is not to say that the various organizations are blatantly misrepresenting the numbers in order to protect their own interests, but rather that the possibility of the problem being understated does still exist.

As will homelessness in general, a problem that sadly has no miracle solution on the horizon. But as long as an honest effort is being made in curtailing the issue, the ability or inability to properly quantify it can be overlooked.

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