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.

While many cities now have abandoned the warehouse approach to homelessness, they also are struggling to undo past mistakes, to dismantle entrenched, unworkable institutions, and to create radically new systems. Miami and Dade County, on the other hand, have nothing to dismantle. "Miami really has been in a unique position, because it doesn't have a lot of baggage around this issue in terms of existing programs," says Nan Roman, vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C. "It can look at all the programs around the country and decide what it wants to do."

As things have worked out, what Miami wants to do is very close to what Alvah Chapman wants to do. The venerable community leader and former chairman of Knight-Ridder played an influential role --along with Herald publisher Dave Lawrence and construction magnate Armando Codina -- in a project two years ago that resulted in clearance of the homeless under I-395 from Biscayne to NE Second Avenue. The county moved trailer offices into the area to oversee the relocation, and most of the street people were put up in motel rooms, for which the county paid a subsidy to the owners. But money ran out after several months, and most of the homeless were back on the street. Not in their former encampment, though, which had been fenced off.

The project was one of two partially successful attempts to clear the Mud Flats, as the homeless encampments under I-395 are known. (The more recent relocation effort is the third.) It was launched shortly after the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce introduced its own long-term homeless plan after two years of work. The document, which contained many elements later incorporated into the county's new plan, never got off the shelf, at least partly due to bitter divisions and power struggles among the various factions involved. Many alliances were forged during this time that would prove instrumental in the eventual formation and administration of the current plan. One of interest: the close association among Chapman, lawyer Anita Bock, and the state's liaison with Dade County for homeless issues, Patricia Pepper. Bock participated in the Chamber's homeless plan and was the principal author of the subsequent I-395 cleanup, for which she was both vehemently criticized and praised. Today Bock is acting regional director of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and is a member of the Homeless Trust.

In early 1992 Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez turned to Jack Peeples, a prominent lawyer and close friend of Gov. Lawton Chiles, for help in persuading the governor to put the force of his office behind efforts to find a solution to Dade's homeless problem. At the time, the county was still moving people out from under I-395, but money was running out, and the state Department of Community Affairs insisted an attempt be made to unite Dade's factions behind a long-range homeless program. Chiles appointed a commission to do that and asked Alvah Chapman to chair the panel. Knowing he would be racing into a treacherous political slalom course, however, Chapman wanted a pledge that the body's eventual recommendations would be endorsed and supported by the mayors and managers of both Miami and Metro-Dade. He got it. He also saw to it that the majority of the commission were friends and associates, including Dave Lawrence; Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, president of Barry University; Judge Henry Ferro; attorney Charles Schuette, and Dr. Douglas Harris. "We needed someone of impeccable standing to lead this effort, someone who would be very hard to kill off," says Pepper, at the time assigned by the state Department of Community Affairs to work with Dade leaders on homeless issues.

In November 1992, a few months after the governor's group started discussions, U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins handed down an order in the ACLU lawsuit against the City of Miami. Not only must the city cease rousting people just because they are homeless, Atkins ruled, it also must establish two "safe zones" where those with nowhere else to go could pursue normal daily activities in peace. Homeless advocates applauded, the city appealed, but everyone knew those safe zones weren't going to solve anything.

The basic form of today's homeless plan came out of the governor's commission's deliberations over several months in late 1992 and early 1993. A year earlier county leaders had brought to the legislature the notion of funding homeless programs with a tax, but the bill failed. This time the Dade County legislative delegation prepared to pull out all the stops to get an enabling act passed. Lawyer and Dade County lobbyist Ronald Book, a seasoned Tallahassee insider, was the county's main strategist. Chapman and Peeples, another governor's commission member who had worked for the tax a year earlier, threw in their considerable political weight.

In early April, in the final hours of the 1993 session, the legislature narrowly voted to authorize a one-percent food and beverage tax to fund homeless assistance programs, with fifteen percent of the revenue going to combat domestic violence after the first year. Peeples, along with Dade County Commissioner Alex Penelas, is now co-chairman of the county's Homeless Trust; Book, whom the Miami Herald once described as "a bearded, fast-talking whirlwind of Armani and gold," is a member of the trust's executive committee. Chapman does not sit on the trust. He has founded a new nonprofit agency, Community Partnership for Homeless, which is expected to win the contract to build and operate the three shelters proposed in the homeless plan. Pepper turned down a federal job with HUD to be executive director of the agency, at an annual salary of $90,000.

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