LESS than a year ago, Miami was so backward in its treatment of homeless people that a federal judge felt compelled to order the creation of "safe zones," declaring unconstitutional the city's "custom and practice of driving the homeless from public places."
Now just nine months later, Miami has gone from bottom of the class to near the top in its enlightened policies dealing with the ultimate poor.
Starting on Oct. 1, metropolitan Miami will levy a 1 percent tax on meals served in restaurants with liquor licenses and annual sales of at least $400,000. It will raise an estimated $7.5 million in the first year to finance an innovative three-part program designed to make the homeless an obsolete class.
As a first, essentially make-do phase, three new 500-bed shelters will be built, providing free lodging, meals, and medical care for up to 30 days. But the core of the program, expressing a profound change of heart from a year ago, calls for job training, addiction treatment, and counseling. These rehabilitating services will be offered for six to nine months, or longer if needed, to convert the category of "homeless" into the category of "productive."
The turnaround comes at a time when the homeless are increasingly forgotten and resented in many cities. Commenting on the program, Mayor James Scheibel of St. Paul, Minn., head of the United States Conference of Mayors task force on hunger and homelessness has said, "Miami is addressing the causes of homelessness instead of passing anti-homeless legislation."
Within three years, according to the Miami plan, low-cost housing will be in place to accommodate human beings no longer destitute - prepared to make a home as contributing citizens of the community rather than as dependent survivors on the fringe.
One final aspect of the Miami project makes it a particularly promising model. The program will be administered by a nonprofit corporation, representing the private sector, religious and advocacy groups, and, above all, the homeless themselves.
Not surprisingly, restaurant owners, the Florida Restaurant Association, and tourism groups are not thrilled with the 1 percent solution. But who knows? If this ambitious plan to make Miami's homeless an extinct species half-succeeds, Miami's restaurants may eventually acquire thousands of new paying customers.