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.

When County Manager Joaquin Avi*o offered him the job a year ago, it wasn't exactly what Menendez considered a promotion. For five years he had been a lobbyist for the county in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., most recently holding the title of director of intergovernmental affairs. Before that he had served as director of community relations at the University of Miami. He had made his first inroads into politics in 1979 at the precocious age of 22, when he dared to challenge now-U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, now-County Commissioner James Burke, and ten other candidates for the state legislative seat of the late Gwen Cherry. Menendez was the only candidate largely backed by a fraternity. Meek, the victor, invited him to become her legislative aide.

Menendez brings all his lobbying skills to bear on his current $64,000-per-year post. Besides overseeing an office of fifteen case workers, much of the job involves trying to secure state and federal funding for homeless assistance programs. Menendez also designs programs and meets with neighborhood groups and committees more often than he'd care to count. "I think the job description that I originally discussed with the county manager and what I've molded this job into are a little bit different," he adds. "One of the things we never discussed is that I would be actually dealing with the homeless population and running programs like tent city. I'm doing it out of necessity. This is a job that can't be done from the 27th floor of the Metro-Dade Center. And we have to make the entire community realize that this a problem that all of us have to solve."

His effort has won the praise of his superiors, among them County Commissioner Alex Penelas. "I think he's phenomenal," proclaims Penelas, chairman of the commission's Homeless Task Force. "He's a very innovative administrator, he's very progressive in his thinking. He's not a standard put-'em-in-a-shelter, lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key type of thinker. And he's talented at bringing many people to the table." While the accolades are less forthcoming from homeless advocates around town, many of whom say Menendez is too divorced from street-level ministry, they commend him for his tireless effort.

Menendez insists that it's exactly this drive and enthusiasm that he brought to the tent city. After overcoming resistance to the project among county administrators, he insists, he was deeply committed to helping it succeed. "Of course I would've liked to have done something more different than a tent city, but we were left with no other choice. It was the fastest type of project we could put together. There were people in crisis out there."

In his opinion, the project was crippled by two major problems. One, he says, was the awkward relationship and growing contentiousness between the Archdiocese and Metro-Dade, which, he insists, was "related to the fact that the agencies had never worked together. There were some misunderstandings, a lack of agreement on how to do basic things, but for goodness sakes, this is the first time I'd ever worked with Peter Coats."

While the matter of the Williamses stands out in the minds of his critics, Menendez views it simply as an example of good case management. As he sees it, he and Liz Regalado handled the family sensitively, and he firmly disagrees that there was any need to contact anyone about the decision to move them. "What are the laws that say I have to do all this informing? When people tell me about some of the problems we had A for goodness sakes, none of this stuff is anything that is going to get me strapped in an electric chair in the State of Florida! I think it falls under minutiae, under pettiness, under bullshit. [My critics] all need to grow up, okay? They need to get a life!"

As for charges that he was harmfully detached from the day-to-day running of the encampment and from the spirit of the project, Menendez shoots back: "Nothing could be further from the truth. I was aware of every single thing on that site, whether or not I was there. My staff and people who I knew on site were keeping me abreast of what was going on."

Amid all the administrative hurly-burly, Menendez points out, he was trying to deal with the second major problem: the weather. The evacuations had crippled the morale of the residents, who were still coping with the psychological aftereffects of Hurricane Andrew. Because even he couldn't do anything about the wind and the rain, and because another storm season was approaching, he felt there was only one solution.

It wouldn't make him popular.
Bruce and Margie Netter learned about the decision five minutes before the television stations got the tip. Anita Bock, deputy district administrator of HRS, got word that same afternoon. Tent city residents plucked the news off the rumor grapevine, then heard the formal announcement later in the day. Tent city was closing prematurely. Andy Menendez's orders.

"When residents started complaining to me about the fact that they couldn't continue to deal with these evacuations, that's when I realized that they were absolutely right," explains Menendez, who made the announcement April 20, seven weeks into the short life of the tent city. "I think one more evacuation and these families would've gone berserk. I was going to end up in Chattahoochee State Hospital and so were they."

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