MIAMI (CBSMiami) — His home could have been mistaken for garbage. A cardboard box which an elderly man trusted to provide him shelter.
After months of nudging and encouragement from a unique mobile medical rescue and homeless outreach team, on a cold February morning, the man at the center of concern agreed to let them help him get off the street and into shelter.
“He is interested in going to detox which isn’t something that happens every day. A lot of times they will tell you ‘get the hell out of here,'” shared Adrian Mesa, a nurse practitioner with Camillus Health who awakens long before dawn each day to visit the streets and the men and women he is driven to help.
“It’s a good day?” asked CBS4’s Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen who traveled with Mesa and the team.
“Yes, we want to capitalize on that moment when somebody wants to go into treatment and this is that moment! This doesn’t happen every day, so we are taking advantage of it,” he reflected with a smile.
After checking to see that the man’s vitals are steady and helping him change into a clean shirt and socks which they carry with them, a van arrives to bring the man known as ‘Miguelito’ to treatment on the road hopefully to the Camillus House Shelter.
For the team from the Lazarus Project, morning rounds that can include dispersing medicine and critical psychotropic drugs, move from the streets of Miami to the shelter where the continuum of care touches dozens of lives each daybreak.
It is part of a journey that can take one from homelessness to shelter to ultimately independent housing. For the chronically homeless, some of whom have been living on the street for decades, coming into shelter can be a bumpy ride.
“There are a lot of setbacks. They relapse. They go back. You stay at it. Eventually they get better,” says Lazaro Trueba, team supervisor, 20-year veteran of homeless outreach efforts and the inspiration behind the project.
Treating the chronically homeless, the majority of which in South Florida are suffering from mental illness, according to a recent outreach survey, often takes months for medications to start working. And they apparently are working for a client living in a shelter named Alex. He takes pills handed to him by the team and there are hugs that follow.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. It breaks your heart. Guys like Alex could curl up like a dog. Now, he has a bed. He can make decisions,” says Trueba.
Visiting the dorm, the CBS4 news team could see that when medicine and treatment works, the impact can reveal blossoming talent.
Gillen met one resident who had formerly been living on Miami streets. He is an artist who suffered from mental illness but who told Gillen he has reclaimed his world since living at Camillus House. His room was lovingly decorated with his vibrant, meticulous art, which he told Gillen was the key to his living. Not having the ability to paint? He equated that to ‘death.’
Weeks after graduating from detox, the team was delighted to find ‘Miguelito’ in shelter resting in a bed.
The transition from street to shelter is often dramatic.
Medical assistant Aldo Fleites, who was once a nurse in Cuba, carries cell phone images of many of the men and women he met on the street. They document first encounters and reveal the difference cutting someone’s nails can make in restoring their sense of dignity. He revels in seeing the smallest of changes and signals of awareness in those he tends to, particularly as they come to realize that someone finally cares about and values them as people. He lets them feel as though they are not forgotten. And most importantly, he says, not judged.
Perhaps the best face of success is a beaming resident who told Gillen he is so grateful to the Lazarus team for bringing him in off the street. A long personal mission that addressed his needs with proper medicine. Now he says he is joyful and holding down a construction job.
“Thank you, I owe you everything. The medication works and now I have a job. Thank you!” he booms as he hugs Mesa.
“It does feel good,” says Mesa.
But tackling the very personal and complex rescue mission of transitioning someone from street to shelter is a never ending and increasingly more difficult job. And the urgency of finding new modalities are also driven, advocates say, by the changing face of downtown, like Miami’s.
With the city’s real estate, literal real estate for those who live on the streets is shrinking. Striking a balance of needs is not simple and not all agree on approaches.
“It is good that the community is growing and downtown is where people want us to be. And I think that we need to attack the issue of homeless in a different manner,” shared Alyce Robertson, the Executive Director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority.
“The business community cannot sweep homelessness under the rug,” Robertson told Gillen.
Approaches to fighting chronic homelessness are not without controversy. The so-called Homeless Poop Map – tracing a trail of human feces – ostensibly from the homeless – across the Magic City made its way into national coverage. The map was commissioned by the Downtown Development Authority which funds a roving mobile toilet to address the issue of sanitation for the homeless and for a burgeoning downtown.
“We did not do the Poop Map for general consumption. We did the poop map to define where the problem is an where we should locate the bathrooms. Unfortunately it leaked to the press and it went viral,” reflected Robertson.
Does she think the bathrooms are a success?
“Yes. We have an initial 57 percent reduction in fecal matter we found on the street but it’s also a success in a different way. It is about the human dignity of providing a place where somebody can go to the bathroom and they can have privacy,” said Robertson.
Striking a balance of bringing care to the streets, with a goal of linking the chronic homeless with full-time shelter and ultimately independent living is not simple, but according to those in the trenches, in Miami, it is not ignored.
Neighbors 4 Neighbors is accepting donations and volunteers for this program at their website.
To donate just go to the above link and click on the “Donate: button and select “Help for Homeless” on the designation box and “Lazarus Project” on the dedication.
To volunteer, click on “I Want To Help” and select the Homeless Project. You can also call them at 305-597-4404 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for caring!