By Adrian Madriz
My husband and I live in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana. We pay over $1000/mo on a 300 sq ft studio apartment that has no working A/C, and the kind of roach infestation that belongs in a horror movie. It’s not ideal, but it’s the most affordable place we can find, as can most Miamians forced to make the same undignified decisions because of rampant gentrification–and we count ourselves as the lucky ones. For hundreds of other LGBTQ individuals in Miami-Dade, their home is either the street or a slumlord building, and they frequently resort to having their bodies exploited just so that they’ll have a dry place to sleep.
LGBTQ Homelessness is not a phenomenon unique to Miami. The land where Mike Pence is Vice President is also the land of parents tossing their kids on the street because of their “lifestyle choices”, and no amount of gay marriage or Will and Grace coming back is going to prevent that from being a reality for many of our siblings. However, Miami makes this challenge uniquely difficult. That’s because gentrification and its associated Affordable Housing Crisis are spreading equal opportunity misery to every working class resident. There isn’t enough affordable housing of any kind, let alone free housing for the homeless.
In response, we’ve decided to do something about it. Over a year ago, we started a non-profit called the Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing (SMASH). Our goal is to #SmashTheSlumlords, end gentrification and develop Miami for the people, by the people. Our first project, in partnership with Neighbors and Neighbors Association, will create expedited housing units for Miamians in need of emergency shelter, and it will be built in a self-sustaining way through low-cost pre-fabricated modular units, or shipping containers. A local LGBTQ Community Center called Pridelines is collaborating with us on the project to set aside as many units as possible to shelter the numerous LGBTQ homeless youth that frequent their center on a daily basis. Over the next few weeks, we are meeting with funders and allies to gather support for this piece of the project.
It’s important to understand that any attempt to solve the LGBTQ Homelessness Problem in Miami is doomed to failure if it does not also competently address the greater housing affordability problem that contributes to it. Miami attracts the world’s wealthiest people, which makes living here as a local very expensive. Most Miamians can’t afford a home, so they rent, and 68% of those renters are unable to afford their lease. The rental market is so distorted that even the worst apartments, complete with rats, mold and ghastly sewage problems still charge upwards of $600/mo, and for families living on the fixed income of SSI (usually $700-800/mo) that’s where the majority of their check goes.
Affordability in Miami is the defining struggle of the moment, and organizations constantly try and fail to overcome it. What makes the SMASH approach different is not just what is being developed, but how it’s being developed. We emphasize a community-led, grassroots approach to development that ensures our project is a true product of the neighborhood, and not some foreign invader aiming to change the area to suit the tastes of the wealthy ruling class. One of the democratic models we are pursuing is a Community Land Trust (CLT). CLTs allow groups of people to own and control land, and then offer their members the opportunity to own buildings on that land while keeping the land itself permanently in the community’s control. It’s a cool system that was invented by African-American farmers in the 1960s fighting racist lending practices, and the model has expanded to facilitate the community led development of clinics, child-care centers, super markets, gardens and of course, affordable housing. By making the LGBTQ Homeless Shelter part of this larger model, we are protecting it from the future pressures of gentrification, slumlords, speculative development and economic shock through true, democratic community control. We do this primarily because we know what happens when funding dries up or restrictive covenants hit their expiration dates: worthy organizations close their doors, housing is lost and people become homeless once again. If we’re serious about ending that vicious cycle, CLTs are a must.
Given the severity of the problem, and the comprehensive way we’re trying to fix it, you would assume that our organization is well supported financially. I wish that were the case. SMASH is still very small, with zero paid staff. Even I, the Executive Director, do not receive a salary, and for many of the worthy organizations doing important work in Miami, the story is the same. We do this because we care, and in my particular case, it’s a matter of survival. I love Miami, and I’m proud to be from here, but every day it gets harder and harder to stay here, and if my husband were to (God forbid) lose his job, we would literally go homeless too. We need the support of people like you in order to sustain this important work and make a real difference. Lives depend on it.