Miami’s homeless shelters fill empty beds ahead of Hurricane Irma

Jeanette Theodore had no storm shutters to put up and few possessions to protect.

With forecasts putting a monstrous hurricane somewhere near Miami in just a couple of days, her lone focus was finding a safe place for herself, her daughter and their belongings, all jammed into a 2016 Hyundai Elantra over the last few weeks.

“I just didn’t want to be on the streets any longer with my daughter, especially with a hurricane coming,” Theodore, 25, said from inside a cramped office at the Chapman Partnership Homeless Assistance Center near downtown. “It’s been pretty stressful trying to think, ‘Where am I going to go?’”

Theodore and 6-year-old Lanaye Joseph were among the first women, children and men to seek shelter from Hurricane Irma Tuesday after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he expected to order evacuations from coastal areas either Wednesday or Thursday. With that announcement, the county’s Homeless Trust began filling empty homeless shelter beds and families like Theodore’s started phoning the county’s help hotline.

Hurricane shelters, which will admit anyone until filled to capacity, are expected to open Wednesday after schools close for the weekend ahead of the storm, which could bring tropical storm-force winds to Southeast Florida by Friday evening. But as Hurricane Irma spawned sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and bore down on the northern Leeward Islands late Tuesday, outreach workers fanned out over Miami-Dade looking to get Miami’s most vulnerable to a shelter before things get dicey.

“You know there’s a hurricane, right?” Lazaro Trueba, a city of Miami outreach worker, half shouted behind Macy’s at a man who in a few minutes would slide into Trueba’s white city van and introduce himself to a reporter as God.

God knew the hurricane was coming. He just didn’t know where he’d stay if it hit.

With 1,100 people living on the streets countywide last month, outreach workers will continue making the rounds until either all the homeless shelters are full or conditions become too dangerous to go outside, according to Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book. Some have been on the streets for weeks and years. Others, like Theodore, who says she’s currently taking paramedic training courses at Miami Dade College, are coming off a couple of bad breaks.

After Trueba dropped off his passengers at the Homeless Assistance Center, he headed back out to Bayfront Park, where a few sparse, grey clouds did little to cool a sweltering afternoon or foreshadow what could be coming this weekend. He’d helped bring in about three dozen people in the first two hours of searching.

“It’s not a lot,” Trueba says. “But, considering the weather, a lot of people aren’t taking it seriously yet.”

He found Theodore Alexander slouching on a park bench. Originally from Memphis, Alexander didn’t have much experience with hurricanes, nor did he wish to change that. So he waited until Trueba found him.

“I figured, somebody’ll come and rescue me,” Alexander, 71, said as he boarded Trueba’s van en route to Camillus House on Northwest Seventh Avenue.

By sundown Tuesday, Trueba and the small army of outreach workers drew 72 people off the street. He’ll be back out Wednesday.

South Florida’s homeless families can also call hotlines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to try and find help ahead of Irma. In Miami-Dade, the homeless help hotline is 305-375-2273. In Broward, the number to call is 954-563-4357.

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