By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Numbers show that homelessness, which shortens lives everywhere, is twice as lethal in Broward as in Miami-Dade.
The comparative data points come from a study of homeless deaths in 2016 through 2020 that The Guardian newspaper reported last year, as well as from the study’s author.
“The average person experiencing homelessness in Broward County in 2020 had a mortality rate nearly four times higher than in 2010,” Matt Fowle told Florida Bulldog last week. Now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, he researched homeless deaths in 20 widespread U.S. localities when he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington.
In Miami-Dade, the larger county with the bigger homeless population – 3,560, exceeding Broward’s by 1,349, nearly 38 percent – ”the risk of death has more than doubled” over the same 10-year period, according to Fowle. He contacted both authorities and informal sources such as homeless advocates during his research.
County medical examiners reported 100 homeless deaths in Broward in 2020, when the total unsheltered population was 2,211, and 95 deaths in Miami-Dade, Fowle’s data shows. And that was before COVID-19 pandemic fatalities peaked in January 2021, hitting homeless people harder than the general population.
BROWARD’S TOP HOMELESS PROVIDER
“There are demonstrable reasons that Broward’s death rate exceeds Miami-Dade’s,” said Jeff Weinberger, an activist who works on Broward homeless issues.
“First, the vast majority of Broward’s homeless population is unsheltered, while the opposite is true of Miami-Dade. So, having to live on the street and be subjected to that level of stress can reasonably be considered a major factor.
“Second, Miami-Dade seems to have much better street response to addiction, including street needle exchange and a medical outreach team, as well as the Lazarus Project, whose main focus is dealing with mental health issues among the homeless populace,” Weinberger said.
While it would be unfair to blame any one entity for Broward’s alarming homeless death rate, Broward Partnership for the Homeless calls itself “the largest comprehensive homeless services provider in Broward County.”
The nonprofit runs two assistance centers, in Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, “providing street outreach, 498 beds of emergency shelter, over 100 units of scattered-site permanent housing interventions … rapid rehousing, and a complete array of health and social services,” its website states.
PARTNERSHIP’S MARKETING PRO
Florida Bulldog asked Fran Esposito, the longtime Broward Partnership CEO, to comment on the homeless death study and her work, but PR operative Kip Hunter insisted on responding. Sent a dozen written questions, Hunter referred Florida Bulldog to many websites and other service providers, but made no substantive comments on Esposito’s behalf.
In response to questions stemming from the study, Hunter gave this answer: “We do not have the data from this study and cannot provide a response on surveys or studies that were conducted outside of the organization.”
In 2019, Esposito was paid $229,730 plus $19,494 in “other compensation from the organization and related organizations,” according to the nonprofit’s 2020 tax form. Hunter declined to reveal how much Broward Partnership pays her marketing firm because, she wrote, their contract is “confidential.”
The spike in homeless deaths was old news to Dr. Armen Henderson, an internist with the University of Miami Health System. “I’m not surprised. I’m not even surprised by the difference between Broward and Miami-Dade. At least Miami has a concentration of services,” he said.
“People have heard that the services are great in Miami so people will travel from different parts of Florida to get services in Miami-Dade County,” Henderson said. The downside is fewer resources are available to Miami’s chronically unsheltered population, “so they’re left to their own devices.”
Henderson is on the front lines of delivering medical services to this often-overlooked or demonized community.
He was the mainstay of a free health clinic that operated out of a storefront in Liberty City. He was a leader, along with the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, of a sustained effort to make sure people with no permanent address were inoculated against COVID-19.
A HOUSE PROMOTES HEALTH
“A house is a social determinant of health,” Henderson said. He connects homelessness to premature death through a long list of illnesses he and his colleagues treat all the time.
“Among patients we’ve seen, they can have foot fungus and they have to have their foot amputated, so having athlete’s foot now becomes a serious infection. Once you’re in the hospital with a blood infection, you’re at risk of death,” Henderson said.
“An individual who doesn’t have access to healthy food gets high levels of blood pressure that leads to kidney disease. It may be too late to be put on dialysis and they may need a kidney. You’ll be on the bottom of the donor list if you’re unsheltered,” he said.
Until recently Henderson ran a free clinic at 5505 NW 7th Ave. that served homeless and poor neighbors. Landlord Gator Investments, which had responded to complaints about a collapsing roof by starting eviction proceedings, finally succeeded. Citing nonpayment of rent, Gator emptied the building – already on the city’s demolition list – of the clinic, a food pantry and a community center.
“We are currently homeless but we’re gonna remain vigilant,” Henderson said this week. “The good thing is that it’s OK for us, we’ll be where the people are and that may be in flux at times. We’re looking at a mobile clinic.”
HOW GOOD ARE BROWARD SHELTERS?
Weinberger has been an outspoken critic of Broward homeless services for many years.
In November he urged county leaders to address “mismanagement” of the four main homeless shelters. He detailed incidents of “verbal and emotional abuse of residents and the unaccountable discharges to the streets of senior citizens and people with disabilities.”
The Broward Partnership runs two of the shelters. Asked about Weinberger’s claims, Hunter wrote, “You would have to contact Broward County regarding any complaints with the County.”
In contrast to the Broward Partnership, the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust is a county agency funded by tax dollars. Chairman Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist, receives no salary for running the trust. His paid work includes lobbying for homeless issues, which he describes as crucial to his successful advocacy.
MORE THAN HOUSING NEEDED
In August Book applauded Miami-Dade County’s $85 million investment in housing to counter rent hikes and homelessness. He told Florida Bulldog last week that he’s trying to negotiate a separate project to build 50 to 100 tiny homes for unsheltered residents.
“You need three things to solve the homelessness problem: You need a plan, leadership and money. You miss one of those, you will not solve the problem,” Book said.
Henderson agreed with Book’s resolve to build, but argued for a more comprehensive approach. “You need long-term housing for individuals who have serious mental issues. You need rent control. You need drug services for people who are otherwise going to slip through the cracks,” he said.
“You need all those things to happen. You need to change the negative sentiments around homelessness. If those things aren’t happening together, we’re never gonna solve homelessness in a place like Miami-Dade County,” Henderson said.
As for Broward, at least Hunter shared with Florida Bulldog the Broward Partnership’s goal for homeless deaths: “functional zero.”