Scientists warn rising sea levels could soon be an unstoppable force, and Miami is already facing the consequences.
According to the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the Miami area has experienced an increase in urban flooding due to high tides and rising sea levels since 2006. The city’s homeless population is often among the hardest hit.
“They are fearful at the moment that they even hear a word if there are going to be any storms or flooding,” said Fred Mims, the Director of Direct Care Ministry at Camillus House. “It creates a crisis situation at that moment because some of them are not ready for shelter.”
William Quinones, 38, is one of the Camillus House’s clients. He had been on the streets for 30 days after losing his job, but he looks and talks like those days will soon be behind him: Quinones wears a white polo shirt, jeans, Reebok sneakers, and he’s sporting a crisp black Miami Heat cap and freshly trimmed facial hair. And while he was doing well now, he still remembers what it’s like to wake up in the rain.
“You know sometimes you’ll feel that initiative and think ‘I’m going to get a job tomorrow!’,” Quinones said. “But if you wake up in the rain, it’s just not happening.”
“It just kills whatever you wanted to do that day,” he continued.
According to the Homeless Trust in Miami-Dade County, there were 4,325 total sheltered and unsheltered homeless in 2015—almost 1,000 of which were unsheltered. Mims said that a large contributor to that statistic is the lack of affordable housing in Miami.
“Most people that are on disability … are receiving about $733 per month,” Mims said. “The housing pricing here in Miami is anywhere from $600 to $700 and above in rent. Most of our people cannot afford that. But once we have affordable housing, I think we could eradicate the situation because folks would be able to pay about 30 percent of their income [on rent].”
A 2016 study by the Florida International University Metropolitan Center confirms Mims’s observation. Their data shows that 51.3 percent of households in Miami-Dade County are spending 30 percent or more of their annual income on their housing, which indicates that a household is “cost-burdened,” according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
And 13 out of 14 of Miami’s neighborhoods have an above-average poverty rate, the highest of which is Florida City at 39 percent. Due to the shortage of affordable housing and income inequity in Miami, it’s difficult for members of the homeless population to get off the streets and stay that way.
“If [our clients] only get their needs met, if they only get food and shelter, they might get back out there and secure something, but more often than not they end up back on the streets,” Mims said.
In some cases, some of those experiencing homelessness remain without shelter because what is available may pose a safety concern.
Such was the case of a transgender client who dresses in whatever she wants—whether that be jeans or dresses—and refers to herself as Nicki Love. Love introduced herself wearing a gray T-shirt, a black crop-top leather vest, bleached skinny jeans, and a simple straw hat, presenting a gender-ambivalent appearance.
“I would come in wearing dresses and they would take them away, even though they were my clothes.” Love said. “They were my clothes.”
Before Love came to Camillus she went to the Miami Rescue Project, where Love said she felt unsafe because of her gender identity. Love was seeking shelter after trying to get out of the sex work industry in Miami, but instead she found prejudice.
“The same people who were telling me how to act are the same people saying, ‘Hey, come here. I wanna talk to you,’” Love said, moving down an octave from her high-pitched natural tone. “And I like saying no, this is God’s house. We don’t do this foolishness here.”
Such is the homeless experience for many in Miami: frequently racing for shelter from bad weather, facing obstacle after obstacle in trying to secure permanent shelter and income, bouncing from temporary shelter to temporary shelter, or a combination of the three.
On top of that, Miami also faces the greater threat of rising sea levels, which poses an additional problem. Miami now not only faces higher sea levels—up 12 inches since 1890, according to the World Resources Institute—but also eroding beaches, an increase in the strength and frequency of storm surges, an invasion of Miami’s underground freshwater aquifer by rising seawater, and an increase in urban flooding.
“If you live in Miami Beach, [climate change] is already a pressing issue because you can’t get to your house several days out of the year because of high tide flooding” said Amy Clement, an associate dean and professor at the University of Miami’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
According to Clement, the worst-case scenario that is most likely to happen is if a Category 5 hurricane were to hit Miami during high tide.
“It’s actually not that unlikely,” she said. “Category 5 hurricanes are not particularly common, but they’ve hit here before. And high tides happen several times a year, some of which could come during hurricane season. Just like how Sandy hit during high tide in New York, which is why the damage was so bad … and the ingredients are already there for that to happen now.”
With almost 200,000 Miami citizens residents less than three feet above sea level, the consequences imposed by climate change have already affected thousands. But a shortage in affordable housing and a reliable access to basic needs leaves those in Miami without shelter particularly at risk.
Even now, during regular storms, facilities like Camillus House struggle to provide emergency shelter; but not because of a lack of space.
“Some of them are not ready for shelter. Some of them are not ready for traditional shelter,” Mims said. “So the stimulation that comes along with shelter sometimes traumatizes them, it sets them off.”
“I realized I can’t fix all my problems. I can’t do it by myself. And I used to try to, all the time, even though I knew it was heavy,” Love said. “I had people who would wanna help me with my problems but they don’t know me, and I don’t know y’all. But it’s different at Camillus House.”
Ben Kirtman, a professor in the Division of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography at the University of Miami, is optimistic about Miami’s future as sea levels rise.
“The way to think about this is that we’re not going to be able to reduce the sea level rise. What we’re going to be able to do is adapt to the rising sea levels,” Kirtman said.
About the Author
Nick Seymour is a senior at the University of Georgia. Learn more about him here.