Shelter Fallout

After years of doing nothing Dade County now plans to put 500 homeless people under one roof. It won't be in your neighborhood, of course.

It was all in honor of Dan Quayle, back in February 1991, when he was still vice president. Drivers down Biscayne Boulevard slowed to an irritated halt while a few dozen people crossed the street, back and forth from the I-395 overpass to Bicentennial Park, like a disoriented trail of ants. Most were men in oddly matched and ill-fitting clothing that was obviously donated. They pushed shopping carts and lugged plastic garbage bags. Police stopped traffic to let them cross.

Quayle was on an official visit to Miami. One of his scheduled appearances was at the Omni International Hotel just a few blocks north of the I-395 overpass. The Omni rises high above a convergence of extremes, where Miami's disparate degrees of prosperity and culture and sensibility meet but rarely mix. To the east the Venetian Causeway runs across verdant islands of wealth to Miami Beach; next door are headquarters of the Miami Herald and its powerful parent corporation, Knight-Ridder Inc., with the Port of Miami and downtown skyscrapers spreading out farther south. To the west, views from the Omni's windows rest on boarded-up, graffiti-riddled buildings, tattered nests of homeless people, jobless men congregated on street corners.

Quayle's visit came as Miami officials were looking with an uncomfortable mixture of embarrassment, frustration, and denial upon the city's growing homeless population, perhaps most visibly represented by the squatters under I-395. A few years earlier the city commission had made an unsuccessful attempt to outlaw sleeping in public. Police had made sweeps of homeless encampments and burned belongings. After that attracted negative attention, they tried kicking people out of parks from sundown to sunrise, hauling off any possessions left behind. Circuit Judge Henry Ferro proposed bringing a decommissioned, well-appointed naval warship to Biscayne Bay to provide lodging for the homeless. Other civic leaders advanced plans to bus all the homeless north to a rural area and teach them how to farm, or to send them to Hialeah warehouses, the Orange Bowl, or Bobby Maduro Stadium. None of which prevented legions of panhandling, window-washing, public-sleeping homeless people from becoming a worsening headache for local politicians and business leaders.

And there was that federal lawsuit hanging over their heads. At the end of 1988, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint in U.S. District Court against the City of Miami, seeking to establish a legal right for people without other recourse to live unmolested in public places. Both the city and Dade County had officially declared a "homeless emergency." Then, as now, lodgings available for homeless people in Miami didn't begin to meet the need. It wasn't until the late Eighties that any county money went to programs for the homeless, although Dade has long offered emergency housing. Federal funding for low-income housing, a lack of which is blamed as one of the myriad causes of homelessness, had dried up almost entirely during the Reaganomics of the Eighties and was still hard to come by in the thousand-points-of-light Bush years.

Still, it wouldn't do for the eyes of the vice president to be assaulted by the sight of ragged folks sprawled on mattresses no more than ten or twenty yards from where his motorcade would pass. So on that sunny February morning in 1991, a couple of Miami Police Department patrol cars pulled up to the homeless settlements under the interstate nearest Biscayne Boulevard. "They said we had to go," remembers Chris, one of those rousted. "They wanted us gone by that afternoon. I moved back into Bicentennial Park across the street. Oh yeah, it was moving day. I had boxes of stuff, and it took me about three trips." He sighs. Chris, 35 years old, moves among homeless encampments, small and large, all over town. "Later that afternoon," Chris continues with a giggle, "I was at the front of the park and I saw the entourage. We saw all these cars and the police escort and we were saying, 'Now who is this?' Later we found out."

Two and a half years later, Dan Quayle practices his golf swing, Chris is still drifting, and homeless people still live under I-395, although the number has declined markedly in recent months, thanks to a relocation project funded by the state, the county, and several municipalities. In fact, Dade County's homeless population, now estimated to range from 6000 to 10,000 and swollen by Hurricane Andrew, is as visible as ever. But on a far less obvious and more fundamental level, things have changed drastically on the Dade County homeless front.

In late July, the county commission approved a ten-million-dollar-a-year plan to get the homeless off the streets and keep them off, and a new tax to help pay for it, making Dade County the first local government in the nation to dedicate a source of funds to homeless programs. The plan should begin to materialize early next year in the form of a large "homeless assistance center," the first of three anticipated 24-hour shelters, each housing 300 to 500 people and costing about two million dollars to construct and almost one million to operate annually. Some existing homeless services are to be expanded, too, and more permanent housing developed.

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