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.

* "3-28-93: Matthews (E3) and Ackerman (F3) fighting again.... Jenneatte from social services told them don't go near each other, don't talk to each other, just stay away.... Dianne and Manny Alvarez are having a serious marital dispute!! She confided in me, and I told her to talk to her social worker or Beth and ask about marital counseling."

* "4-7-93: I spoke with Mrs. Matthews. Applauded her cleverness in using the restraining order as a motivational tool for her husband to go for help."

* "4-8-93: "Vivian (our housing coordinator) saw Mr. Ayala drinking out front in his car. He was quite drunk. Mrs. Ayala said she can't save money because he blows it all on drinking, etc., according to Vivian. I will follow up."

It was a population that needed such attention, explains Bruce Netter. A burly yet gentle-voiced man easily identifiable by his thick New York accent and long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Netter brought with him more experience in homeless advocacy than perhaps anyone else connected with the project. For years he served as assistant director of the Miami City Mission and helped run other homeless assistance programs in the county. He, along with his wife Margie, an ebullient woman with a disarmingly impish grin, formed the spiritual core of care and support for the families. "I saw in my eyes Bruce as Jesus Christ in tent city," says Sucheila Singh. "I'm not very religious but I saw in my eyes Bruce as the shepherd with the lost sheep."

The fact that the lives of residents were saturated with help eliminated the hassle of their having to fend for themselves in negotiating the rigorous mazes of bureaucracy. One piece in the mosaic of assistance, free on-site day care, provided immediate and welcome relief for parents whose struggle to regain a sense of normalcy was all the more difficult. "Before we set up the tent, mothers were fighting each other, there was a lot of tension," observes Adriana Vann, principal of the Vann Academy, a preschool contracted by HRS to provide day care to the tent city. "The same day we opened the day care, people came to us and said, 'What happened? Everything is so peaceful.'"

With no immediate worries about food, shelter, or care for their families, parents were free to pursue job leads, housing alternatives, and educational opportunities, and, in general, to sort out their lives. "I came into the tent city with a lot of stress," admits Tammy Lane, a 23-year-old mother of two who separated from her husband soon after Andrew. By her own admission, Lane took out her stress on her two children, until Bruce Netter finally called in an HRS Child Protective Services team to "get her attention," as he puts it. "At first I felt like I'd been betrayed, but after talking with him and getting help, I thanked him," Lane says.

She says she planned to take parenting classes and to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. She also formed her own housecleaning business, had business cards made, and began working. "My kids were beginning to settle down," she explains. "I was able to go through HRS to get help without the stress of having the girls right on top of me. I was able to get my mind off them."

After the hurricane, which destroyed their apartment, Maritza Ayala, her husband, and their five school-age children (one of whom is mentally retarded) lived at various times in their van and in homeless shelters. At the tent city, Ayala and her husband, a construction worker, were able to save money while she pursued a child-care certificate for future employment at a child-care facility.

Not that the tent city was by any means a paradise. "It changed a little for the worse as different people started to move in," Maritza Ayala recalls. As the population grew, so did incidences of drug use and spousal and child abuse. "But," Ayala hastens to add, "I think those people would've had problems wherever they lived." And despite very rare instances of drug use and petty theft, Metro police report that crime was virtually nonexistent.

"People really believed that something was going to take place because there were little bits of change happening around them," Bruce Netter says. "They started to become something that they hadn't been in months: optimistic."

But for all the hope that permeated the community of troubled homeless families, an equal amount of rancor intruded at the administrative level. For those who witnessed Andy Menendez standing inches from the face of Peter Coats and yelling at the mild-mannered Archdiocesan official, there may not have been another image that better captured the emotions of the conflict A or, for that matter, the legendary hotheadedness of Andy Menendez. "Andy kept getting in his face and yelling four-letter expletives," remembers Michael Lakowski, a site manager hired by the county for the project. "Andy's veins were popping out of his head. I thought he was going to haul off and hit Peter. And Peter was just standing there listening."

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