For Miami-Dade homeless centers, a grasp for new money as budget lifeline expires

When the New Hope Corps homeless rehab center lost more than $400,000 in federal funds last spring, Miami-Dade County dipped into its emergency reserves to keep the program running.

But that rescue itself is running out, and the head of the Homestead facility recently warned board members they may have to kick out more than a third of their residents if they can’t find replacement dollars.

“We’re the only treatment center south of Bird Road for men. There’s nothing else,” said Stephen Alvarez, director of New Hopes Corps. “I’m looking for money everywhere.”

That hunt will take Alvarez to the Miami-Dade Commission chambers on Thursday, when commissioners plan to revisit how to distribute charity dollars in the county budget. New Hope and other homeless shelters were on track to receive an infusion from the county’s $14 million fund for charities, but commissioners earlier this year voted to reject that plan in order to preserve existing grants for other nonprofits.

I’m not optimistic there is a way to solve their problems right now.

Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade homeless board, on providers that lost federal funding

“I think they all thought they were going to get it,” Ron Book, chairman of Miami-Dade’s homeless board, said of the charity grants recommended for homeless centers. “I’m not optimistic there is a way to solve their problems right now.”

New Hope’s pending fiscal cliff — Alvarez said he expects to empty 20 of the addiction center’s 57 beds if he can’t find $430,000 by Oct. 1 — captures the delayed consequences of Miami-Dade’s disappointing performance in the 2016 round of grant awards from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Last May, about two dozen local centers focused on domestic violence and drug treatment learned they lost about $6 million worth of federal grants to other jurisdictions across the country. But two months later, Miami-Dade agreed to close most of the funding gaps by tapping into a $9 million reserve fund of a special restaurant tax for homeless programs.

The emergency allocation of more than $4.5 million was to cover 2016 and 2017 expenses as the centers either wound down their programs or found replacement dollars from the state or from donors. With the 2017 budget year ending Sept. 30, the deadline for replacing the HUD funds looms about five months away.

Better Way, a Miami addiction center for the homeless, lost about $1 million in HUD funds last year and is contemplating cutting the number of residents it can accept. “We’re in the process of perhaps being able to replace some of the funds from different sources,” said Michael Festinger, the charity’s CEO. “But there is nothing certain.”

It’s not known how many of the original centers that lost out on HUD funding still need it. Some providers dropped programs covered by the HUD money, shifting resources to other arms of their organizations.

Inn Transition, domestic-violence shelters that lost out on $900,000 in HUD grants, has been promised replacement dollars from Miami-Dade since the nonprofit has a contract with the county to provide certain services. “I’m told the county is going to find the money,” said Amanda Kessler, president of Junior League of Miami, which oversees the Inn Transition program. “But from where is unknown.”

This week saw some encouraging news in Washington. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said a $1 trillion federal spending bill that passed the House on Wednesday includes some promising add-ons for Miami-Dade’s homeless agency.

Diaz-Balart is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees HUD spending. He said in a press release that he inserted into the bill $40 million in grants for homeless centers that lost funding last year, and another $5 million in assistance targeting high-need communities like Miami-Dade. “We’re excited,” Book said.

Even so, the extra HUD money probably wouldn’t be available until next year, and even then would be subject to another national competition. Book said local programs without new funding by Oct. 1 won’t get help from Miami-Dade’s homeless board. “Those programs that have not found alternative funding will likely go away,” he said.

One promising source of quick replacement dollars was Miami-Dade’s annual allocation to “community-based organizations” — an umbrella term for charities. In 2016, the county launched a rare competition for the $14 million grant pool, which for years has just rolled over to longstanding recipients throughout Miami-Dade.

Facing backlash over stripping funds from some high-profile charities that were given low scores by the independent selection committee, the Miami-Dade commission voted on March 21 to reject the grant recommendations and keep the existing grants in place. The decision meant no extra money for New Hope and Better Way, which had been recommended for new charity grants.

While the 7-4 vote rejected the proposed grant allocations, a commission committee is set to take up the issue of community-based organizations Thursday. The grants are allocated each year in the regular budget process, meaning commissioners have a chance to redistribute the money Oct. 1 if they want to.

Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo assigned the matter to the policy committee chairs, and the eight-member panel is set to discuss the issue at the 9:30 a.m. meeting in the Stephen Clark government center. That will give the public a chance to address commissioners before the session, and representatives of homeless centers are expected to be there. (Alvarez of New Hope said he’s just going to watch.)

Bovo said he’s interested in reviewing how other local governments handle charity funding as possible alternatives for Miami-Dade. But he also questioned why the county was parceling out tax dollars to nonprofits rather than putting more attention and resources into broader issues like transportation and infrastructure.

“We need to be very judicious with this money,” he said. “I could use it in other places, to be quite honest with you.”