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.

"I was trying to save a few cents with my daughter working and was looking forward to a HUD home, but not a trailer," she says. She had also planned to teach sewing classes to other mothers. "I had so much confidence. Then one day A boom! A I was in the washhouse and Andy Menendez came with a TV reporter and a TV camera and said, 'Mrs. Singh, I wanted you to know what is happening A we're closing tent city down A and I want you to say something for the camera.' I said, 'Oh, it's terrible! After so much time and effort and work and getting all these people together, I can't believe it's happening. It hasn't been completed and they're tearing it down!'"

Maritza Ayala, another trailer park transplant, feels much the same. "It left a lot of us out in the cold, because we were really expecting to get a lot more out of it than we did," says Ayala, who wasn't able to accomplish her goal of obtaining a child-care certificate. "They really painted us a pretty picture."

Along with several other residents who didn't qualify for FEMA trailers, Tammy Lane was relocated to the forlorn Clover Leaf Apartments on NW Second Avenue north of the Golden Glades Interchange. In moving to the other end of Dade, she has lost what few contacts she had made in her housecleaning business, and she hasn't been able to find suitable day care for her kids. With her days taken up by her children, she hasn't enrolled in parenting classes or sustance-abuse sessions as she had intended. "We thought we'd been deceived. I feel as if I was betrayed by the county. I could've continued what I was doing and made damn good money doing it. I would've had my life together if the county hadn't screwed things up." Late last month, under pressure from HRS and her estranged husband, Lane voluntarily gave up her children to her husband's care for a week.

Whatever concerns Andy Menendez may have had for the well-being of the tent city's children, the closure's timing A six weeks before the end of a traumatic school year A couldn't have been worse. Adriana Vann says her school still receives calls from tent city parents looking for day care. "I don't think Menendez stopped one moment to think about the children or the adults," Vann says. "For me, it's disgusting. When you have human beings involved in the middle, you have to be careful. I don't like the way he does business."

Menendez didn't arrange for follow-up programs by school tutors or HRS. Several residents in need of help have independently contacted Beth von Werne, who, after the tent city closed, returned to her job as director of relief operations at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Perrine. "They were telling me that I was the only family they had since the tent city had broken up," she says. "People were moving into FEMA trailers with nothing in their kitchens. They needed pots and pans and money for food." Many residents, Von Werne asserts, were unaware of relief sources that were available, such as the American Red Cross, which provides deposits for electrical hookups, and the Archdiocese, which provides deposits for telephone service. "Nobody from FEMA or the county had told them that there was a way to do these things."

Accusations of neglect infuriate Menendez, who says that he has invited various agencies to propose follow-up programs. "A lot of people talk a big game and a lot of people say they want to do big things," he protests. "It sounds compassionate, but where's the beef? I'm from Missouri: Show me! Tell me where the pot of money is and I will put the program together." (While the county hasn't completed its final accounting, Menendez's initial estimates for the two-month project put its cost at about $800,000.) Meanwhile, he claims, a team of six social workers under his command has maintained contact with residents who were relocated to South Dade addresses.

That comes as news to Sucheila Singh, who hasn't seen Menendez or anyone on his staff since shortly after he broke the bad news and asked her to comment for the cameras. "They haven't come by to ask me how I am. They don't have to continue giving us lunch and dinner, of course, but at least they can show up and say, 'Are you having any problems?' Or just, 'There's nothing we can do for you right now but we're trying.'

"I miss my neighbors and the staff at tent city," she continues. "Everyone had a shoulder to cry on. They understood our situation and they were always available. I was looking forward to staying the six months. I didn't want this at all. I feel like I'm lost way back here. It's like just after Andrew. It's like I'm lost again.

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