Camillus House: Dr. Paul R. Ahr, President and Chief Executive Officer

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Paul-Ahr-thumbIn 1960, a Roman Catholic ministry, Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, opened a soup kitchen in Miami-Dade County, Florida, to provide food and beverages to Cuban men living in public spaces near downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower. Eventually, Brother Mathias Barrett was also able to open a small shelter and offer beds at a rented house.

Since then, Brother Mathias’ operation, Camillus House, has grown to 16 locations throughout the county that provide comprehensive, compassionate care to the neediest among Miami’s homeless population.

Providing services for the neediest individuals

Camillus House’s mission at its most basic is to fulfill the Catholic Church’s Works of Mercy, which include feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and sheltering those without homes. The organization provides emergency, transitional, and permanent housing; substance abuse and mental-health treatment; basic healthcare and dental care through its sister organization, Camillus Health; and hospitality services including food, showers, clothing, case management, and rent assistance.

Camillus House cares for people who meet the definition of persons who are chronically homeless — defined as someone who is homeless for a year or longer or experiencing four episodes of homelessness in three years — and have a disabling condition such as mental illness, substance abuse, a chronic medical illness, or a physical condition. This is a smaller niche within the homeless population, but one in desperate need of Camillus’ services.

“Many people we see at Camillus House who are homeless have a narrow range of choices on how to get on with their lives,” said Dr. Paul Ahr, president and chief executive officer. “A large portion of persons who are homeless have traumatic brain injuries, and those who are chronically homeless usually have substance abuse, untreated mental illness, or some form of a criminal record as well.”

The organization serves as a blessing to many individuals who find Camillus late in life.

“Some people spend their lives on the street, but we reach out to them and are able to put them in permanent housing where they are able to live with dignity and peace,” Ahr said.

Expanding care to meet basic needs

Camillus houses about 900 people a night and serves 350,000 free meals a year. The Brothers of the Good Shepherd who sponsor Camillus House also operate a separate nonprofit organization called Camillus Health to provide basic healthcare services to more than 5,000 patients a year.

Miami-Dade County levies a one percent tax on food and beverages sold at establishments with incomes over $400,000 a year. This revenue is administered to civic organizations through the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

In addition to private philanthropy and government grants, many of which are administered by the Homeless Trust, fees paid by those using services such as transitional housing, healthcare, and treatment programs support Camillus House’s mission. Residents in transitional housing must hold a job and pay monthly program fees. Residents in permanent apartments must contribute 30 percent of their incomes to program fees and participate in supportive services to gain independence and move on to unsupported housing.

In 2008, after many years of planning, Camillus began an $84 million construction project to bring more services to one campus. The expanded campus will have seven buildings, four of which are already built and operational, and will be able to house 340 individuals a night.

There is a commissary, a larger kitchen and dining space, an 80-unit apartment building that provides low-rent housing, a 128-bed treatment center, a 48-bed overnight shelter for men and women, a 64-bed job readiness center, a 20-bed medical respite unit, isolation rooms, and medical outpatient clinics. Persons who are homeless can shower three days a week, and Camillus House is the only place in the county where women who are homeless have access to a shower. Individuals off the street can also receive barbershop services, use the Post Office, and visit a nondenominational chapel.

During the next few years, Camillus will add more office space and a Catholic Church on campus.

Out of one program came many

Camillus House has grown from one substance abuse program eight years ago to five programs for mental illness or substance abuse.

“We are evolving as a treatment entity to deal with the issues our population has,” Ahr said.

He added that the medical conditions afflicting most of these individuals are the same as those found in the general population, including diabetes, coronary artery disease, and hypertension.

Overall, Camillus House’s mission is to help those who are chronically homeless and struggling the most to get off the streets to overcome disabilities or illness and to become productive members of the general population. Ahr said through the work of other organizations that serve individuals who experience temporary episodes of homelessness, Camillus can help end chronic homelessness.

“We have a lot of other agencies in the county,” he said. “Through their good work to intercept people becoming homeless who don’t have disabling conditions, we are able to keep our focus on that population. I believe in seven or eight years, we will nearly eliminate chronic homelessness in the county, and I hope that in the future we will be dealing with people in the early stages of homelessness.”

-by Patricia Chaney

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Corey March 4, 2014 at 11:31 am

Grate job Dr. Ahr keep up the good work you and the entire staff are doing at Camillus House.


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