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 occasion: an April 15 midnight evacuation to a community center in Goulds A the fourth such event in the tent city's short history A amid a severe-weather watch.

Coats refuses to say what was being discussed. "Sometimes passion rises in tense situations," he explains modestly. "Sometimes it's better to forgive and forget. At least, that's what I get paid to do here."

While Menendez is equally unspecific, he is considerably less diplomatic. "It was a discussion about philosophies and about when is an appropriate time to approach a county administrator," he says. "At 11:30 at night, when we are all rushing around evacuating, is not the time to pull me aside and start dealing with what I term a bunch of minutiae."

Witnesses say the conversation regarded a lease and a management consulting agreement the county and the Archdiocese had intended to sign. The county had failed to submit drafts of the agreements until the project was already months old, and the lack of a formal contract led to disputes, specifically about who was in charge.

On the whole, relations between the Archdiocese and Menendez had gradually worsened since the tent city's opening. In fact, several of his own temporary employees now say Menendez and his office became an obstacle to the operation. Among their complaints: that he was slow to order needed supplies and to reimburse out-of-pocket petty cash expenditures.

In addition, his critics are quick to cite Menendez's handling of the Williams family, whose situation A and its abrupt resolution A foreshadowed the closure of the project itself. Robert Williams suffered from terminal cancer, was under hospice care, and was hooked up to an oxygen machine. His wife Annette, who was pregnant, was a recovering substance abuser. One of the couple's three young children, a victim of sexual abuse, was undergoing counseling. "I had been working with ten different agencies to get them all kinds of help," recalls Garrian Hadley, a former physician's assistant who was hired by the county to work as assistant director of social services at the tent city. "They were doing fabulous. The different counselors who had been working on this family for the past year and a half said the family had never been doing as well as they were at tent city."

But on April 9, amid the third evacuation, Elizabeth Regalado, Dade's social services supervisor for the tent city, suddenly relocated the Williamses to a motel on a seedy stretch of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. (Last month Robert Williams died; the rest of the family has moved in with a relative in Florida City.) The action was taken without consulting the social services director, the site director, or representatives from HRS or Robert Williams's hospice. All were angered by the move.

When he learned what had happened, Peter Coats wrote a memo to Andy Menendez in which he criticized Regalado's actions as "unprofessional and unacceptable." Menendez never replied.

It didn't help his relations with tent city workers that Menendez made only rare appearances at the encampment -- by his own admission, only about twice weekly until the final month. "All he did was sort of look down from the county building and watch us," says Michael Lakowski. "Andy and Liz [Regalado] were rarely ever there. The only time they showed up was when their management capabilities were questioned."

Adds Garrian Hadley: "All he wanted was the publicity. He'd only come around if he would get his name in the paper or if he was going to be on TV. He would make everybody tense and seemed to work against us. I don't feel he wanted it to work from the very beginning."

Several of Menendez's employees recall their boss's expletive-laced pep talks. "He always said, 'You got to know who you're loyal to. If you're loyal to them then you can leave right now,'" recalls one former county employee who asked to remain anonymous. "He would threaten your livelihood if you weren't loyal to him. He'd tell you to walk. He'd shout profanities at you and wouldn't apologize to you if he realized he was wrong. It was really incredible."

"Sometimes people are looking for a wishy-washy bureaucrat, and I'm not like that. My approach is a no-nonsense approach. With a problem as serious as the homeless, that is the only way to approach it."

Andy Menendez, Dade's 34-year-old director of homeless programs, is on a mission to wake up the county to the realities of its homeless crisis. If it means he has to yell in someone's face, he'll yell. If it means he has to forgo sleep, he'll stay awake. If it means he'll pull very unbureaucratic eighteen-hour days, he'll do that, too. And you can be sure he'll tell you all about it, even if you didn't ask. Menendez's passion for his cause is matched only by his hubris.

"I'm the type of person that if you give me lemons, I'll give you lemonade," he pronounces during a rare sedentary moment spent in his cubicle in the Metro-Dade Government Center. "I can tell you, I'm rolling up my sleeves and busting my butt day in and day out to take care of this problem. You tell me: Who is more committed to helping these homeless families in their totality? I don't let the bureaucracy, the hypocrisy, the bullshit get in the way of my mandate." The lean, balding Menendez concludes his statement with a deep, thoughtful slurp on a fruit smoothie.

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