Joyce is 80 and lives on the streets of South Florida. All her worldly possessions are neatly tucked away in one suitcase and two garbage bags. She has no shelter, just a mat on the sidewalk. And it’s been that way since 2017.
On this rainy December night near Jackson Memorial Hospital, volunteers with Key Biscayne’s Hermanos de la Calle provide the feisty senior with a pink hoodie that almost swallows her whole. Volunteers were trying to get her ready for bed, but were having trouble getting Joyce to lie down on a mat. She insisted on brushing her teeth – so her toothbrush was quickly located.
Malena Legarre tells Joyce – who asked her last name not be published – that the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust may be able to place her in a real home soon.
“Finally, she has been open enough to give her documents to the case manager so she will get an apartment soon,” said Legarre, who runs the nonprofit Hermanos de la Calle organization with her husband, Narciso Muñoz.
Hermanos de la Calle started out of Muñoz’s desire to show his eight children that following Jesus Christ means more than just attending weekly Mass.
The family started out volunteering at the soup kitchen at the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa. Muñoz, though, yearned for a deeper connection and Hermanos de la Calle – Street Brothers – was born.
“I really converted myself,” he laughs.
Today, Lagarre dedicates herself to the mission while Muñoz still works as a managing director for a division of investment bank Raymond James. The couple, originally from Argentina, dedicate their resources to the mission. The taillight on their Honda Odyssey is taped up. A copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” sits on the dash.
Florida has the nation’s third highest homeless population with nearly 26,000. In Miami-Dade, there are more than 3,200. On Friday, Miami-Dade County will commemorate Homeless Persons Memorial Day at Stephen P. Clark Center to reflect on the 189 homeless lives lost in 2023.
Aligning with the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, a County agency, allowed the group to expand its footprint. “Our world changed a lot when we plugged in with the Homeless Trust,” Muñoz said.
Ron Book, the Trust’s chair, said Hermanos de la Calle assists in every coordinated effort that the Trust does, providing a model to be replicated by other organizations.
“Homelessness in Miami would look much different if not for the compassionate and results-oriented support offered by Hermanos de la Calle,” Book said. “This team of staff and volunteers know how to connect with this special population in a way that few people do.”
About twice a month, Hermanos de la Calle hits the streets. It will relocate an individual by providing a bus ticket to return home to their family. It will find a shelter. It will find temporary housing. It will find drug rehabilitation for those suffering from alcoholism and addiction.
Nationwide, homelessness is at record highs, according to new data released this month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The 2023 Annual Homeless Assessment Report showed an 12% annual increase in homelessness, affecting 653,000 individuals.
In Miami-Dade County, the homeless population on the streets actually dropped 14% in during the last count in August over the previous year to 980 individuals, in part because officials have been successful in moving people to shelters. There were an additional 2,740 people in shelters, according to the Homeless Trust, up 4% over 2022.
The precursors of homelessness are many. There is medical bankruptcy, family dysfunction, the inability to pay exorbitant rent, mental illness, domestic violence, addiction and the migrant crisis – or a combination thereof.
About a dozen volunteers arrive at the back parking lot of St. Agnes Catholic Rain despite the rain . Some are affiliated with other homeless outreach groups.
Several teenage boys from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School are armed with Christmas packages of underwear and toiletries. Laura Peña and Alvaro Ortega, both in their 20s, are ready to hand out blankets, sweaters, even Christmas ornaments. Another volunteer drops off dozens of homemade meals.
A caravan of cars head out to 17th Street and 7th Avenue where a tent city exists. As soon Muñoz arrives and opens the tailgate, he disappears in a sea of homeless individuals as he hands out the food.
One homeless man, Franklin King, who said he is about 80, said, “I think this is wonderful, to come out here to share, especially in all this weather. That takes commitment.”
“I realized that you don’t need to go to Calcutta to find people suffering,” Muñoz said. “They are just two bridges away.”
“Where are you from honey?” Legarre asks one woman who is coaxed out of her tent. Her name is Felicia Evans and she is from Georgia, coming to South Florida for drug treatment that didn’t take.
Evans is almost ready to go back into treatment. “Please call that number,” Legarre tells her. “They will give you a lot of support and they will help you get out of the street peacefully.”
Another woman, who identifies herself as Shawna, breaks down in tears. She lost her home when the elderly man she took care of in Miami Shores died and now she can’t stop drinking.
“I’m trying to get help,” she tells Muñoz. Muñoz gives her his personal cell so they can connect the next day to place her in treatment.
Legarre said women on the street are a priority. Some are being trafficked. Others are stuck in a relationship so they are not preyed upon by others. “In many cases, we were able to separate the person from their domestic situation because they are forced to be with the person because they need protection,” she said.
It’s sometimes hard to find the right fit.
Abraham Jimenez and Olga Pichardo, an elderly husband and wife, won’t go to a shelter unless they can’t be together, for instance.
There are also successes. Maritza Garcia, wheelchair bound, is smiling when Muñoz greets her. She lives in a tent with her husband, Raymond Garcia.
“She used to use fentanyl and other things and now she is sober. It was like she was possessed,” Muñoz said. “I was like down to 90 pounds,” Garcia said.
After a couple hours, when all the food, toiletries, blankets and phone numbers have been passed out, volunteers climb back in their vehicles.
Muñoz and Legarre talk about plans on holding a Christmas Party the next day for migrant children. The group is monitoring places where migrants are arriving – such as Miami International Airport.
Legarre said one of the more enriching experiences is helping people off the streets, especially those who are ill, so they can pass with a roof over their head.
“In some of the cases they were dying of terminal cancer, but they were at so much peace,” Legarre said. “Because in the last moments of their lives they were being treated as someone who is suffering should be treated.”