Bob Dickinson and the Camillus House Crusade

A legendary figure in the travel industry, the former CEO of Carnival Cruise Line has set his sights on ending homelessness in Miami

By Diane Merlino

Bob Dickinson wants to end chronic homelessness in Miami. 

It has the ring of impossibility about it — kind of like wanting to build a single-ship operation into the world’s biggest cruise line. But Dickinson did exactly that during his 36-year career with Carnival, and there is every indication that his efforts, combined with those of many other like-minded individuals, will in time create the day when chronic homelessness in south Florida is a thing of the past. 

Since retiring as CEO of Carnival in 2007, Dickinson has directed much of his energy and passion to developing Camillus House, a full-service center for the poor and homeless based on a “continuum of care” model. He was instrumental in the capital campaign to raise more than $80 million for the center’s recently opened new campus — Norwegian Cruise Line Campus of Camillus House — and is active on the forefront of other major fundraising initiatives.

Dickinson describes the nature of his involvement with Camillus House and its clients with an analogy: “I spend more time in the Pentagon than in the field, but I’m in the field enough to really understand what’s going on.”

His commitment to the center is fueled by his spiritual beliefs and ideals. But the competitive verve that made him legendary in the cruise industry is also apparent in this arena, where the disposition to be first and best has been turned to humanitarian ends. “Our real goal,” says Dickinson, “is to be the first city in the country to end chronic homelessness. We are a model for the rest of the country.”

Dickinson shared his efforts and successes at Camillus House, and the things he’s observed and learned from them, in a conversation with Travel Weekly PLUS Editor-in-Chief Diane Merlino.  

It’s been 5 years since you retired from Carnival. What do you enjoy most about your life now?
“Well, I’m enjoying a lot of things, but my primary vocation is sharing Camillus House, the largest service provider for the homeless in south Florida. We deal in one way or another with over 8,000 men, women and children in the area. We’re the federally designated health care provider for the indigent in Miami-Dade County, and we have a little over 800 people in permanent, transitional and emergency housing. And we provide rehabilitative services — food, clothing and shelter, and a variety of other things. BobDickinsonCMS 

Do you really believe it’s possible to end chronic homelessness in Miami?
We do. Chronic homelessness is a federal definition. You need duration — you need to be homeless for at least a year or more, or experience four instances of homelessness in a three-year period — and you have to have a disability, drug or alcohol addiction, chemical dependence of one kind or another, mental illness, HIV or a physical disability. Frequently in the client base these are co-occurring, and you have two or three happening at the same time.

So using the official definition of chronic homelessness, how long will it take to eliminate that reality?
What drives this is that our new campus has the ability to create as many as 128 rehabilitation beds. The rehabilitation program we have is operating in a mid-80 percent success rate, but it takes about nine months. So if you have 100 beds, for example, and you utilize them fully, over the course of a year you are going to successfully graduate about 133 people. The chronic homeless number in the county right now is between 600 and 800 people, so this is something we can achieve in another six or seven years, depending on funding. It’s a real model for the rest of the country. 

You mention ‘successfully graduating’ people. What’s your definition of success? After the nine months or so in Camillus House they are drug and alcohol free. If they have mental illness it’s within controllable  levels. The vast majority of people get job training, and they will either have jobs or be in a queue to get a job at the end of their stay.

The recidivism rate — the failure rate after one year — is only 10%, which is extremely low. Our philosophy is once you’re a client of Camillus you’re a client for life. Several years ago there was a woman who went through our services and was in transitional housing, then we found a permanent home for her — Habitat for Humanity built a home for her. A couple of years later, something happened and she fell off the wagon, and she came right back into the system. 

We try and keep track of everybody. The population isn’t that large. Plus we are in a remarkable position in Miami. We’re really the portal for homeless people, they come here before they go to any other agency. We’ve been here for 52 years, and we’re right in downtown, and we have scale. We have a total of 50 or so buildings in 17 locations throughout the county. 

In terms of scale we’re kind of the Coca Cola of homelessness in our area — or the Carnival Cruise Line of homelessness, if you will. 

Why are you focusing on the homeless challenge? There are myriad social problems you could be putting your attention on. Does something about the issue or Camillus House resonate with you? 

I ended up at Carnival Cruise Lines totally by accident. I came down to Miami kicking and screaming from what Dickinsonandgroupwas then the parent company. I didn’t want to be here, it wasn’t part of a grand plan, it just happened.

Camillus House wasn’t part of some enormous grand plan on my part either. I got involved about 16 years ago. When I was running Carnival the then-mayor of Miami asked me to be involved in a feasibility study to determine if we could successfully raise money to build a 48-unit apartment building for otherwise homeless single parents and their kids.

I thought we should be able to raise the money in six months; well it took us three years. We raised the money, and that kind of got me pregnant on the whole process, so to speak. And we ended up with a 48-unit apartment building housing 44 single moms and 4 single dads, and about 65 kids. That was a very gratifying experience.

Homelessness is a deeply rooted and multi-faceted problem. Do you ever feel discouraged?
If I feel discouraged or disappointed it’s not because of the homelessness; it’s because as I go out in the community to raise money a number of very affluent people tell me no, they are not going to help. I find that very discouraging, because these people have so much. If I do get discouraged from time to time, that’s usually what it is.

What sorts of reasons do you hear?
I don’t think you ever really hear the reasons. Some of these ‘self-made men’ believe homelessness is somebody’s fault — why should I bother helping people who can’t help themselves. 

I think part of it, too, is that people are just cheap. I’ve never seen a Brink’s truck at a funeral. You’re not taking it with you; nobody gets out of here alive. And we’re dramatically helping men, women and children. That’s the part I find very annoying. 

That being said there are a lot of very generous people, and some of them don’t have a lot of money. Then I’ll meet with people who could buy and sell me ten times over and not blink, and they say no. To them it’s basically chump change. That part is puzzling to me, and it does get frustrating at times. 

Have your efforts for Camillus House changed you in any way?
If you are laboring in the vineyard of philanthropy you have interesting and different opportunities to see human DickinsonSheehanbehavior versus, say, working in a competitive environment like the travel industry. In the travel business you don’t meet a lot of sweet little old ladies who are taking their change purses to give you a quarter, but you will meet them in the business of asking for money.

When people are confronted with the possibility of philanthropy, the consideration of philanthropy — and that’s my job, to confront people with it — it raises a lot of interesting behaviors. Most are gratifying, some are very frustrating. But it’s a very different set of human behaviors than you typically encounter when you are trying to be the king of the heap of cruise lines, and beating back all the competition.

And I enjoy both environments. This is a little bit more human from the standpoint of raising money, and significantly more human in terms of making differences in people’s lives.

Is there a difference between the Bob Dickinson who is working on behalf of Camillus House and the man who headed up Carnival?
I hope not. If I want to be a truly successful person I want to have an integrated life. I don’t want to be one thing to one population and someone else to another, because then somewhere along the line you have to be lying. I would love to have it said of me that I led a life of integrity. 

I think the most successful and happiest people are those who tend to look forward and not backwards. What energizes me today is what I’m doing today, and the prospects for me tomorrow. I know our successes at Camillus House, I know our few failures, and they are reasonable. It’s all exciting.

Bob Dickinson’s involvement in the travel industry continues as a founding member of the Carnival Corporation board of directors. He can be contacted at bdickinson2@carnival.com. 

IMAGES: Top to bottom: Bob Dickinson, opening page of an article that appeared in the spring 2009 issue of John Carroll University Magazine; Bob Dickinson with Camillus House clients; opening of the new Norwegian Cruise Line Campus at Camillus House, June 2012, Bob Dickinson, left, and NCL president and CEO Kevin Sheehan.  

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