Vagabond Cove

Dade has a big new plan to fight homelessness. Residents of the makeshift town on Watson Island might be a tough sell.

Several months ago, the architectural highlight of the homeless encampment on Watson Island was a room with a porch, constructed four feet off the ground among the limbs of a tree on the shore of Biscayne Bay. The dwelling was a clever little house wrought from an assortment of salvaged construction materials and boat parts. It's gone now; the people who live on Watson Island today say it's been weeks since they've seen the man who built it. Some recall that the place burned down. They say the occupant torched it himself. Fires in homeless camps aren't uncommon. Electricity is practically never available, and fire is also employed sometimes as a threat or a tool of revenge.

In any case, that house is gone. And so is Vince, a.k.a. the mayor of Watson Island, the philosopher-musician with a drug problem. But the waterfront settlement, the subject of media attention in past months, including a February New Times story, has entered a golden age in architecture. Just offshore, for example, tugging timidly at its moorings, is a contraption that looks like a cross between a raft and a treehouse, with a brightly striped parachute for a roof. Its creator, Wilson Chichester, says he'll soon put the whole thing on pontoons and take it out on the bay for what he terms "marine research."

Down the shore a few hundred feet to the west is a marvel of one-room homey comfort: a surprisingly spacious, elevated structure with a front porch and screens and shutters on three sides to take advantage of the breeze off the bay. Inside, an unsteady dressing-table mirror glints crazily out on the rest of the camp. Neatly arranged on the carpet-covered floor are dressers, tables, and a comfortable black vinyl swivel chair -- all, according to the homeowner, courtesy of South Dade salvage yards. Two TV sets, one full-size, the other mini, are occasionally plugged into a generator. Among a stack of books on a built-in shelf are a Bible and a thick do-it-yourself text. Out front, in the sand facing the shimmering green water, sits one of those horses-on-springs that kids like to bounce on. Two little girls live in the big house, as a matter of fact, along with their father and varying numbers of other people as circumstances dictate. All around,beneath the island's tall Australian pines, and virtually in the high-priced shadows cast by the more prosaic domiciles along the Venetian Causeway, other ambitious residences -- complete with walls, roofs, and solid wooden or particle-board doors -- have been going up in recent weeks. The tents are still here, too, more of them than ever, as are the haphazard quasi-tent combinations of plywood, scrap lumber, and plastic sheeting. And several cars and campers. As of July 12, according to Livia Garcia, director of homeless programs for the City of Miami, about 80 people were living on the island, in 46 dwellings. The landfill-like pile of refuse that had been mounting for at least a month at the edge of the camp was removed by the city not long ago, though the lack of any sort of sanitation facilities remains an inconvenience. The uncut brush at the foot of the MacArthur Causeway and the bay itself serve as bathrooms.

Island life is thriving. A few months ago Miami's parks department became concerned, specifically about the apparently burgeoning crowd of people living in vehicles parked on the camp's outskirts, and announced that those who weren't really homeless would have to leave. From the looks of it, almost everyone was indeed homeless; the population continued to climb. "Now we're getting more and more people out here. I guess they threw them out from under the bridges," figures Patrick Cole, a soft-spoken man with strawberry-blond hair and a mustache who says he came to Miami looking for work after Hurricane Andrew and wound up on Watson Island last September. He is sitting near his green pup tent, reading a paperback spy novel called The KGB Candidate. A tin plate of black beans and rice brought last night by a church group is uneaten and crawling with flies. Cole is skeptical about talk he's been hearing that the city plans to move the Watson Island camp and relandscape the area. "You hear a lot of things," he remarks, petting a stray cat he says has adopted him.

That's the trouble: too many rumors, sighs Livia Garcia. "We're not kicking anybody out of anywhere," she says. As for the camp being closed and relandscaped, city and county authorities say they'd love to do that. It can only happen, though, after they have enough places to put the people who are living there. And that won't even be a remote possibility until next year, assuming the county's ambitious new homeless project can begin. On July 27, as this story went to press, Dade County commissioners were scheduled to vote on the plan, which includes a one-cent restaurant tax (on establishments grossing at least $400,000 per year) to help fund it.

A county task force developed the plan in response to a ruling last November by U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins, who ordered the City of Miami to establish two "safe zones" for homeless people, in Bicentennial Park and in the so-called mud flats under I-395. While Miami's attorneys appealed the order, Dade County took the lead in crafting a homeless program. Homelessness is a countywide problem, points out Sergio Gonzalez, an aide to commissioner Alex Penelas, chairman of the commission's housing and homeless committee, and besides, only the county has the taxing authority to fund a long-term plan. The proposed program is projected to cost between six and ten million dollars annually, the total depending largely on revenues from the restaurant tax. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that the City of Miami doesn't have to set up the safe zones while its appeal is under consideration, but officials hope that implementing the new program will avoid the safe-zone issue entirely. Besides immediate resettlement, the plan includes treatment for drug and/or alcohol abuse, and help in securing transportation, work, public assistance, even low-cost permanent housing. Notwithstanding its proponents' optimism, though, the project will not be able to address the needs of the county's entire homeless population.

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