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A fresh start for homeless services in Miami

July 1, 2009
by Karen M. Mahar, MA and Patricia A. Cawley, LCSW
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Camillus House is creating a multidisciplinary campus

To passersby the campus of the new camillus house center in miami will look like a row of townhouses and eye-level retail
To passersby the campus of the New Camillus House Center in Miami will look like a row of townhouses and eye-level retail. Illustrations by Jose Paiva.

When Camillus House was founded in 1960, it provided meals and spiritual comfort to large numbers of Cuban exiles assembling on the shore of Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami, Florida. Nearly 50 years later, it operates 15 facilities spanning Miami-Dade County and houses more than 1,100 individuals each night. Yet its main center of operations remains in the same converted restaurant and retail lighting fixture stores where it first set up shop, cramming residential addiction and mental health treatment, overnight shelter, and basic human services into entirely inadequate space.

Now the organization is set to break ground on the New Camillus House Center (NCHC), a 7-building campus including 168,720 square feet of residential and services space and a 136,393-square-foot parking garage (as of this writing the groundbreaking is scheduled for the fall). The $80 million project will encompass 340 beds for short-term housing, residential treatment, medical respite, and permanent, low-demand housing for persons with severe mental illness, addiction, and/or serious medical disabilities. A comprehensive array of supportive services will be integrated throughout the facilities.

The project specifically targets persons who are chronically homeless, meaning that they have been homeless for a year or longer (or for three or more times in four years) and suffer from a serious disabling condition such as an addiction, mental illness, physical disability, and/or medical problem. Engaging and serving such a vulnerable population, whose members have long-term, untreated conditions worsened by long periods sleeping on the streets, requires designing the facilities with this group's unique characteristics and needs in mind.

Oriented around two courtyards

The new campus will need to be a welcoming safe haven, yet allow for security and surveillance measures to ensure a safe and controlled environment. The surrounding community agreed to allow the NCHC into its neighborhood on the condition that it be designed such that its occupants and clients will not be wandering in and out day and night. Camillus House is not a lockdown program, and participation in all of its programs is voluntary. Thus, the challenge was to provide an environment where a population typically distrustful of authority and difficult to engage will want to stay 24/7.

NCHC's 7-building campus will include 168,720 square feet of residential and services space and a 136,393-square-foot parking garage

NCHC's 7-building campus will include 168,720 square feet of residential and services space and a 136,393-square-foot parking garage.

Karen m. mahar, ma

Karen M. Mahar, MA

The project team's architects, Wolfberg Alvarez & Partners, addressed this challenge by incorporating two courtyards that will serve as the development's orienting features. The south courtyard is designed for persons recently living on the streets, offering a safe, contained plaza surrounded by an array of services. Recognizing that many persons with mental illness are not ready or able to come inside to an enclosed space with programmatic requirements, the courtyard offers a space where guests can sleep outside on mats protected by built-in overhangs. Experience shows that over time these guests will engage with staff and stabilize enough to accept services, treatment, and housing. Once ready, a courtyard guest will be welcomed into one of the programs housed in the buildings on the campus.

Unlike many homeless shelters where overnight guests must leave during the day, NCHC will encourage guests to stay 24 hours a day. All of their needs will be met through a variety of “shops” lining the south courtyard, including a post office, a free clothing exchange, and showering facilities on the first floor of building G (see site plan). Upper floors will accommodate short-term housing, medical respite facilities, and a health clinic. On the opposite side of the courtyard, classrooms, a quiet reading room, and activity rooms will be available for those ready to take the step of registering for the Mental Health Day Center program.

The south courtyard will be a comfortable place with paving, large planters and oak trees to provide ample shade, and space for social activities. Guests will be able to check personal belongings into a large storage room, and ample bike racks will be available. In the center of the courtyard a chapel will offer a place of contemplation and spiritual renewal, along with voluntary Catholic religious services. Religious services for other denominations will be held in the auditorium in building B.

Abutting the south courtyard will be Shepherd's Court (building A), a 7-story permanent housing facility with 80 1-bedroom apartments. Guests who initially come for shelter and services through the courtyard program eventually will move into this building. The close proximity will allow guests to see what they can attain, while allowing them to remain close to their support system after becoming residents.