A Tale of Tent City

Last spring, when Dade County united with a local charity to help the hurricane's homeless, the partnership sounded too good to be true. It was.

Most human beings prefer to think of nature as a cyclical process, a perpetual revolution of destruction and renewal. In the face of forces so powerful, such thoughts can be comforting.

They can also be profoundly depressing.
As Dade County's citizenry frantically prepares for the possibility of a second hurricane in as many years, a significant segment of the population is still struggling out from under the wreckage of the first one. Ten months after Andrew, many of those who were displaced by the storm are still without permanent homes.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort to address the posthurricane homeless crisis was mounted this past spring on a scraggly lot in Naranja. The Life and Family Support Center, a South Dade tent city operated jointly by the Archdiocese of Miami and Metro-Dade County, opened in March with the potential to house more than 100 needy families made homeless by the storm.

The project, intended to run for six months and bankrolled by one million dollars in federal funds, represented an unprecedented union of nonprofit groups and Dade bureaucracy. The goal: to provide temporary housing and a vast range of social services, including posttraumatic and family counseling, health care, legal aid, job training and placement, tutoring, and day care. The reality: The Archdiocese's honeymoon with the county was tragically short-lived. Two months after the center went up, and after only 52 families had moved in, the tent city was suddenly shut down. Storm victims who had been promised a multifaceted support system found themselves cast away once again with a renewed sense of desperation.

Sucheila Singh's tale of dislocation is typical of the hundreds of South Dade residents whose post-Andrew lives followed the erratic trajectory of a fast-moving pinball well into 1993. Immediately after the storm, she remained in her three-bedroom rental apartment in Kendall, along with her six children, including a mentally retarded daughter, and her daughter-in-law. Although the storm had shattered windows and ripped off half the roof, Singh's landlord insisted she continue paying the full monthly rent of $665. Income came from Singh's eldest son's job as a courier and from a daughter who worked as an assistant manager at an Xtra supermarket. A 50-year-old widow and a native of India, Singh had quit her Publix deli job a year earlier because of worsening cataracts and painful arthritis in her feet.

In early December the Singhs' landlord moved them out of the apartment so he could begin renovations. The eldest son left to live with his wife; the rest of the family spent most of the month sleeping on the floor at friends' houses. Unwilling to impose any longer, Singh moved her family into a cheap hotel two days before Christmas. As the room rates drained her meager savings, she purchased a large, flimsy tent and several air mattresses and sheets and took the family to a campground in North Miami Beach, where they stayed for more than two months. "My friends who live around Kendall, they call me and tell me to come stay with them, but I can't do that with five kids," says Singh, a small woman with weary eyes and a kind smile. She punctuates her story with the laugh of someone who has seen the worst and has no other choice.

In February Singh heard about the Naranja tent city on a radio broadcast. Her family was among the first admitted. In the compound, which was positively regal compared to the North Miami Beach campground, she saw an opportunity. With both her grown daughters working, she could save money, find a public-housing apartment, and arrange for cataract surgery.

Almost immediately, the encampment received widespread international media coverage. Visiting dignitaries and politicians A Gov. Lawton Chiles, U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, and the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, among them, not to mention government representatives from Los Angeles and the Cayman Islands -- were a frequent sight. "The interest was generated because it was unique and it was working," says Margie Netter, a schoolteacher and former deputy director of the Miami Job Corps Center who was paid by the Archdiocese to work as the tent city's assistant site director.

And by most accounts, the project worked. Residents began to get jobs, to kick drug habits and deal with other personal problems, and to find permanent housing. "The only thing that everybody was interested in was getting their life together," says Margie Netter's husband Bruce, who lived with his wife in a trailer on the compound and served as site director. "They also wanted their friends to get their lives together." Despite its short life, the Netters contend, the tent city stands as a model for intense, interagency response to homeless populations, which could -- and should -- be duplicated anywhere it is needed.

But to project administrator Andy Menendez, Jr., the man responsible for the premature demise of the encampment, the community's early successes didn't amount to a whole lot next to one basic truth: canvas is flimsier than Sheetrock and cement. Menendez feared, too, that the several evacuations of the center made necessary by severe storm warnings had jeopardized the psychological well-being of its residents, and that disaster lurked in the clouds of the approaching hurricane season. "I think our intentions were honorable," offers Menendez, a former political lobbyist who now works as director of Dade's Office of Homeless Programs. "But these families are in crisis and getting them into a tent city just prolonged what happened to them from day one. I knew I had to do something to remedy that situation. I'm a committed individual and I'm committed to the safety of these people."

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