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.

The tent city's closing came at a time when relations between the Archdiocese and Metro-Dade had soured over disagreements about how to run the project, and not surprisingly, Menendez's decision alarmed many people who were closely connected with the relief effort. Workers and residents insist that while the evacuations were indeed inconvenient and distressing, they weren't reason enough to close down the community. Menendez's rationale, his critics say, smacked of bureaucratic myopia; moreover, he made his drastic move without consulting Archdiocese representatives or key health-care and social workers who had been laboring at the center since it opened.

"The reality is that this was something that was working," says Bruce Netter ruefully. "We pissed that opportunity away. It was an absolute error on the part of anyone who had any impact on the decision to close it."

For a project conceived with expedience in mind, the Naranja tent city took a considerable time to come about. Although the first families would not move in until March, according to Peter Coats, hurricane relief coordinator for the Archdiocese's Catholic Community Services, the need for immediate housing had become obvious in the weeks after FEMA closed down its four massive Homestead tent cities in October. Since the hurricane, the Archdiocese had provided a range of relief services, including food and supplies distribution, financial assistance, and medical care. But workers saw the number of clients leap after FEMA's dismantling; hundreds of people sought out the five Archdiocesan missions scattered throughout South Dade, requesting camping equipment and financial aid. Moreover, says Coats, makeshift tent cities had begun to spring up everywhere. In November, with the hope of working out a temporary solution, he approached the county's Andy Menendez.

Menendez, who supported the idea of a new tent city, was able to locate federal funding specifically for poor Dade families who were left homeless by the hurricane. "I realized its potential," Menendez asserts. "I felt like the idea was good, in that it was the fastest type of project we could put together."

In order to secure the funds, the county first had to establish that there was truly a need. Multiagency teams, consisting of representatives from the Archdiocese, Metro-Dade, and the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) fanned out across the county, from Tamiami Airport south to Card Sound Road. Their census: 5000 homeless people (Peter Coats figures that was a minimum). Of that number researchers found 2000 agricultural migrant laborers, 2000 out-of-town construction workers, and 1000 Dade residents dislocated by the storm. Most of those residents were families. The federal government coughed up one million dollars -- enough, it was hoped, to maintain the tent city for six months -- to the state, which gave the money to Dade County to mete out.

The county would be responsible for overseeing the administration of the center and for providing immunity from insurance liability; the Archdiocese would help run the project day to day in accordance with a management agreement with Metro-Dade. The Archdiocese also donated the land A two vacant fields next to St. Ann's Mission on SW 264th Street and 138th Avenue A as well as the services of the Netters and one other employee who would work as director of social services. Dade County provided case workers, site managers, family relocation advisors, custodians, and a 24-hour police guard.

The team, with the help of dozens of volunteers, set up about 80 U.S. Army tents: room for 125 families, several washers and dryers, a mess hall, and a day care center. They rolled in a bank of showers and Portolets. Meals were catered. A FEMA-funded jitney service was available to take residents anywhere they needed to go in Dade. In addition, HRS, the University of Miami's School of Public Health and Medical School, the Dade County Public Schools, and several nonprofit agencies contributed services. These forces were supplemented by an endless stream of volunteers -- 1000 in all during the course of the tent city's existence -- including dozens of spring-breakers from Christian colleges around the U.S.

"It was intended as one of these hopefully beautiful marriages between the nonprofit sector and the public sector, where everybody brings the best of what they can do to the table," explains Peter Coats. "And everybody was at the table. It was extraordinary how many agencies wanted to become involved."

If Sucheila Singh and the other tent city residents checked one thing at the gate, it was privacy. The walls, after all, were canvas. But that very same intimacy quickly engendered a sense of community. "Everybody got very, very close," says Singh. "We were becoming like a big family."

With case workers assigned to every family, and with the immediate availability of health care and counseling, residents' lives were also professionally scrutinized. Several excerpts from a log book maintained by the site managers and social workers indicate the extraordinary micromanagement of activities:

* "3-10-93: Tenant notified me of baby having asthma attack in H-6. Responded along with Garrian and Metro Police. Baby had already settled down but had slight wheezing.... Advised mother, Anna Cade, that if any further problems arose tonight bring child straight to officers at gate. Otherwise keep baby warm and bring to HRS clinic in morning. Note: Baby was without shirt and pants running outside. This was observed by neighbors."

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