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Want to solve homelessness in Miami-Dade? Begin by investing in mental health | Opinion

Miami Herald - 5/23/2024

Camillus House is the end of the line for people in crisis, people who have, by virtue of mental illness and/or addiction, lost their home and every last connection to community and now have fallen off the edges of the world.

Camillus House, which yearly provides emergency, transitional and permanent supportive housing to nearly 2,500 Miami-Dade County residents, is not unique. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry last month found that more than three-quarters of people experiencing homelessness had also experienced a mental health disorder. At Camillus House, nearly 60% of our clients self reported mental illness.

This is not a surprise to anyone who works with people experiencing homelessness or to anyone who has walked in the streets and come across these same people in Miami. Many are clearly struggling and suffering.

The number of people in crisis who need shelter — but also so much more — is increasing and there is no reason to expect that will change anytime soon. In its most recent count, Florida reported 15,482 unsheltered people or 6% of the national total of people living in places not meant for human habitation.

Let’s move beyond awareness and commit to action this May, Mental Health Awareness Month.

To be clear, “doing something” means investing in the resources necessary to meet the real, long-term needs of those experiencing homelessness, hopelessness, addiction, and other mental illnesses.

Camillus House provides housing for our unhoused residents, but for most clients, this is just the start of their journey to rebuilding their lives through mental health treatment, addiction recovery, and counseling.

Currently, we have 90 beds available for clients with mental health and substance use illnesses. However, we need at least double that number to meet the demand for mental health services and provide a long-term solution to homelessness.

Chronically homeless individuals with severe mental illness often end up in jail, a situation that could be mitigated with proper funding for their treatment. Annually, approximately 11,000 people with serious mental illnesses requiring immediate treatment are booked into the Miami-Dade County jail, primarily for low-level non-violent offenses, according to Circuit Judge Steve Leifman.

County data shows Miami-Dade spends $636,000 per day — or $232 million per year — to house an average daily population of 2,400 individuals (57% of the overall jail population) with mental illnesses. Allocating additional resources for mental health services could save taxpayers a significant amount of money and give these individuals a second chance at a productive and dignified life.

Investing in mental health is not an expense; it’s an investment. The return is a sustainable, long-term solution to homelessness.

Despite limited resources for mental health services, we see positive results by treating clients with mental illnesses and placing them in permanent supportive housing once stabilized. This strategy effectively breaks the cycles of homelessness, dependency and desperation.

One of our former clients, now a Camillus House staff member, exemplifies the success of our strategy. A talented chef, he leads our main campus food service. Each day, he steps out of the kitchen to join our clients in the dining hall, reminding them they, too, can have a second chance. He shares his story of once being in their shoes and how treatment, care, and love gave him hope and the strength to manage his addiction. Today, he is a productive and compassionate member of our community.

Treating mental health to combat homelessness is effective, and nonprofits like ours across the U.S. are ready to do the work. However, we need additional funding to expand our programs. This solution requires a major commitment from elected officials and corporations. Funding this effort is everyone’s responsibility because the alternative affects us all.

Eddie Gloria is the acting CEO of Camillus House, which provides care to the poor and homeless, including food, clothing, emergency, transitional and permanent housing, physical and mental health care, and substance abuse treatment in Miami-Dade County.

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