MIAMI — Rachelle Johnson was a homeless mother nursing a crack habit when a Dade County homeless van stopped her on the street last year. Someone asked if she needed help.
"We were picking clothes out of trash piles," says Ms. Johnson, a mother of five. "They said they could help us with shelter and jobs. I was in a state of great confusion, great fear. I felt like my world was all over."
Like her husband, Johnson had been addicted for years. During that time she slept on the street, in a tool shed, and was beaten.
Today, Johnson is a staff assistant at Project Hope, the program that taught her the skills she needed to get a job. She rents a two-bedroom home with her husband and children, and she no longer uses cocaine.
While homelessness endures as a national problem - more than 600,000 people have no shelter on a given night - Miami is pioneering what may be a novel solution.
In an era when many cities are cracking down on the homeless with police sweeps and tougher loitering laws, Miami is taking a different approach.
Officials in south Florida are running a multilevel program that not only offers the homeless emergency care and shelter, but also assists with jobs and housing.
"We have accomplished in a short period of time what few communities have been able to do," says Sergio Gonzalez, executive director of the Dade County Homeless Trust, which coordinates a broad network of programs.
Dade was the first county in the nation to levy a homeless tax, which has raised $6.5 million this year. In addition, the tourist-oriented area has been successful in attracting millions of dollars from private donations and the business community.
Why the effort? Many of the city's stalwart citizens arrived on Miami shores poor and homeless decades ago from countries such as Cuba.
"A lot of people came here with nothing and worked their way up. They can relate to coming here, having nothing, and getting a little assistance," says David Raymond, who leads a group of nonprofit providers.
Also important: Miami's sunny streets draw "urban cowboy" homeless fleeing big-city cold weather in Miami-bound buses. Once here, they panhandle, set up shacks underneath interstate highways, or lie along palm-treed avenues, affecting the city's tourist image. Commercial concerns by the business community, which has donated millions, may be significant, acknowledged Mr. Raymond, but "in the end I believe they cared about the [homeless] people who were out there."
Miami is one of six cities to receive a 1994, three-year grant for housing for the homeless - the Homelessness Initiative Cities Program. The program requires a "continuum of care" approach, offering a group of services geared to move beyond handling emergencies toward long-term solutions. The other cities are Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington.
Miami's Homeless Trust began in 1993 with the passage of a 1 percent food-and-beverage tax, which amounts to $6.5 million annually. The private sector has raised $10 million, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave the program a second installment of $5 million this year after the program measured up to its promises.
"After one year, we see real results," said Andrew Cuomo, HUD's assistant secretary for community planning and housing. He calls Miami's commitment "unprecedented."
Dade's local network of not-for-profit providers includes 60 agencies. They work in three areas:
*Short-term emergency care and housing.
*Primary care, which includes housing up to nine months, vocational training, and treatment and rehabilitation.
The programs have offered housing to more than 2,500 homeless people. And 129 homeless were trained and placed in jobs.
Johnson is one of those who was trained. In addition to her daytime job at Project Hope in Jewish Vocational Services, she is striving to earn a pink Cadillac by selling Mary Kay cosmetics.
Despite the successes, Dade County lags behind in addressing one problem: mental-health treatment. Staff in mental-health and homeless programs had not worked together before and didn't coordinate well. Also, working with homeless individuals who had been diagnosed as mentally ill was found to be more difficult than expected. Single mothers with large families, too, have proved difficult to house, although facilities are being built as rapidly as possible.
Still, the program appears to be working. For Dade County to receive US matching funds, the project was required to meet performance standards, which it did this year.
The tax, donations, and federal dollars have helped, Raymond says. But bringing agencies together was hard. "It was a painful process. [But] we say that we could work out a lot of issues by sitting down together."
The result is that many homeless people have left the street, perhaps for good. Says Johnson, "We got a real break."