With his pink button-down shirt and jeans, Johnny’s outfit seems to blend with the rest of the passersby on Washington Avenue in South Beach. But a closer look illustrates the contrast that exists in South Florida’s commercial hubs: Johnny’s clothes are worn out and he carries all of his belongings in an overflowing carriage latched to a bicycle.
For the past 20 years, he has lived on the streets where others shop, eat and transit.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, people were told to stay home and to practice personal hygiene. These guides were manageable for those with roofs over their heads, but for Johnny and the almost 4,000 individuals who make up Miami-Dade’s homeless population, protecting themselves from COVID-19 suddenly became another daunting task.
“This crisis is hard for folks like me because, I mean, we don’t even have a bathroom to brush our teeth,” said Johnny, who did not want to be identified with is full name. “How are we supposed to stay clean?”
That was the same question Ron Book, Chairman of Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, began asking himself once COVID-19 began spreading in late February.
In states like New York and California, the virus was quickly spreading among the homeless population. At the time, Book said, the prospect of containing it in Miami seemed bleak.
“If you would ask me back in February when we first started, what did I think would be the case, I would have said not only did I not know but my fear was that we would have dozens — if not hundreds — of homeless individuals infected and many of them deceased,” Book said.
However, since the pandemic began, there have been four coronavirus-related deaths and 209 positive cases in a population composed of 1,020 unsheltered and 2,540 sheltered people, according to the Homeless Trust’s records. The current positivity rate of infection never exceeded 3.2% — it is currently below 2%.
Book credits the success in mitigating the spread to the aggressive strategy the Homeless Trust undertook and to the front-line workers who have committed themselves to protecting the people who are often referred to as “the forgotten.”
“The Homeless Trust staff, our outreach worker staff, the staff at our shelters have risen to the occasion of being heroes,” Book said. “Because there’s no question that an untold number of lives have been saved as a result of the sacrifices these individuals have made.”
To help stop the potential spread of COVID-19, the Homeless Trust implemented a robust testing program; strictly followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of wearing masks, disinfecting surfaces and maintaining social distance; and sent out advocates to educate the population about personal hygiene.
The organization has administered more than 6,200 tests to homeless individuals, first responders and front-line personnel.
The Homeless Trust also has partnered with local hotels to secure quarantine and isolation locations for sheltered or unsheltered individuals who test positive or who have been exposed to the virus. After 14 days, they are once again tested, but are only released when they get two negative results.
“When we find that they’re positive, we have the team members that go out to transport the client to one of the hotel sites for quarantine and isolation, and make sure that they’re taken care of during that time,” said Clarissa Hazel, supervisor of the Camillus House Lazarus Project. “They’re offered meals and quarantined inside those hotel rooms.”
Hazel said her team has been working around the clock to supply medication to homeless individuals with severe mental disorders. The pandemic has changed their outreach efforts to also include providing snack bags, testing, and personal protection equipment.
“We want to make sure that even if they have severe mental health concerns that they are being educated to the best of our knowledge of how we can give them the proper protection that they need,” Hazel said. “So we included snacks, we’ve included masks, we’ve done a lot more education, and we also are doing COVID testing as part of our engagement.”
The pandemic has not only altered initiatives, but also broadened them.
In 2018, the Miami Downtown Development Authority’s Pit Stop became a fixture at Bayfront Park as Miami’s public restroom for the homeless. Even though it is open to the general public, Manolo Reyes, City of Miami commissioner and chairman of the DDA, said the program was conceived as a place where “the homeless can meet their basic needs in a dignified way.”
Nowadays, the Pit Stop is, for many, the one place where they are able to clean themselves and acquire masks and hand sanitizer.
Juan Portela, who was once homeless, turned his life around after becoming the program’s supervisor. He sanitizes the bathroom after every use and makes sure guests are practicing social distancing.
“We keep the bathrooms spotless at all times and maintain social distancing. With the homeless, it’s a difficult task because they’re not used to social distancing and washing their hands or face, but I’ve noticed in the last four months that I’ve been here, they have all been compliant,” Portela said.
Sanitizing is a key component to controlling the spread of COVID-19. At the Salvation Army shelter, for instance, the facility is thoroughly cleaned every morning after breakfast, said Major Roy Williams, the area commander of the Miami Salvation Army Area Command.
“We want to keep the building as clean as we can to keep everybody safe and healthy. We need to be here — we can’t just shut these doors because too many people will be affected,” Williams said.
The Salvation Army houses some 250 people and provides three meals — to both residents and visitors — every day. Since the pandemic began, food distribution has increased by 50% compared to the average year, serving more than a million meals across Miami-Dade.
For Williams, this signifies the growing need people are coping with due to the crisis’ economic effects. To meet the increased need, the organization has taken every precaution to keep its 50 employees working in order to serve the most vulnerable.
“Our biggest fear is keeping our staff healthy because if all our staff gets sick, how are we going to be able to run this place? I told my staff ‘we don’t have the option of going out. We have to come to work every day. Because we have people depending on us,’” Williams said.
Bracing for the future
Between being bound to a wheelchair because of an injury and losing her job, Christine Trujillo was struggling to make ends meet. Unable to pay rent, she was evicted from her home. After a couple of months living in a hotel room she could no longer afford, in February Trujillo moved into the Salvation Army shelter with her son, mother and stepfather.
The idea was to stay for a month or two, but COVID-19 put a dent in her plans. She lost the two jobs she had secured in a hotel and a restaurant after they closed during the pandemic. Then she scouted for a new one to no avail.
“Because of COVID it’s hard to get jobs, especially when you’re in a wheelchair. I’ve tried to find jobs, and the minute I say I’m in a wheelchair, they say ‘we’ll call you back,’ but they never do. So, how are you supposed to find a place where you can live and afford? I hate the pandemic,” she said.
The Homeless Trust is bracing for a future that predicts a surge in eviction cases.
“After the evictions and foreclosures moratorium expires, we could end up with just hundreds, if not thousands of new homeless people living on our streets at a time where our unsheltered population has been at an all-time low,” Book said.
Although Gov. Ron DeSantis has extended the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until Oct. 1, landlords can still get the process underway for future action.
“They are in limbo. The attorney can file the case and get their case number, but they can’t get the summons issued and serve the defendant,” said Cameron Creque, Miami-Dade Clerk of Court’s court operations officer.
More than 850 eviction cases have been filed in Miami-Dade so far, NBC Miami reported. Many more are likely to follow.
“We’re expecting a huge amount to come in. Typically in a year, we get about 25 to 30,000 cases in total filed in county court but this year is probably going to be higher than most years,” Creque said.
With the homeless population threatening to increase, another major concern for the Homeless Trust is lacking the funds to aid them. The organization has already been forced to cut its budget, especially since a big chunk of its revenue comes from the county’s Food and Beverage Tax — which has dried considerably due to restaurant closures.
“I just had to cut $2.7 million out of our $66 million budget, and I ‘ll have to take more cuts. By cutting those dollars, I was able to avoid pulling anybody out of shelter,” Book said. “Every penny of my operating reserves is spent down to zero in the 2020 and 2021 budget.
“The potential impacts if this thing goes on, if this fight continues for an additional prolonged period, if we get that shocking wave at the end of fall, early winter, we’re going to have real problems up the road,” he added.
Facing an uncertain future, the Homeless Trust is calling for the community’s help.
“We’re desperate for contributions,” said Book. “We’ve reduced unsheltered homelessness by over 90% with community support, but never has there been a greater threat to human life in our community.”