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.

"The interesting thing about Orlando," advises Chapman, seated behind his Spartan-neat desk in the Knight-Ridder offices, "is you won't find anybody who went to sleep on the street last night."

Exactly, complain opponents of Dade's plan, who assert a clear-the-streets mentality governs Dade's Homeless Trust, to the detriment of a long-range solution. "The fundamental question is, Why are a group of business people in town attempting to put together a response [to homelessness] that has clearly been demonstrated to not be effective in communities all over the country? Of course the answer is, in my view, because they're more concerned about getting people out of sight than in getting people in permanent housing," argues Stephen Holloway, dean of the school of social work at Barry University and from 1983 until 1990 director of Columbia University Community Services in New York, a homeless assistance project.

But being motivated to clean up the streets doesn't preclude humanitarian concerns, insists Ronald Book, the lobbyist. "It is irresponsible of us as people not to try to take care of our own," he says. "But we've got a community image we're also trying to deal with, and I'm not afraid to say that."

The public, however, has heard little public discussion about this plan that will polish Dade's image by collecting several hundred homeless people and putting them under one roof. The only critical perspective to appear in the Herald, for example, was published in the Sunday "Viewpoints" section two days before the county commission's July 27 vote on the tax. It was an article co-authored by Milan Dluhy, director of Florida International University's Institute of Government, and Barry University's Stephen Holloway, both of whom had been key to the early Chamber of Commerce homeless plan and both of whom had vocal partings of the way with Chapman and his supporters. They described the first phase of the Dade County plan -- the 500-bed homeless assistance centers -- as a "formula for disaster."

In their article, Dluhy and Holloway proposed renting ten small neighborhood assessment centers from which homeless people would be referred to appropriate residential programs. They contended that a scattering of small centers would attract less neighborhood opposition than three large ones, while Chapman and others are equally convinced that more sites will mean more problems.

The very next day the Herald ran three rebuttals: a letter from Penelas and Chapman replying to Dluhy and Holloway's article; an article by Penelas praising the county's plan; and an editorial about the need for the commission to approve the plan and the tax. Chapman, fuming about the professors' piece, which he asserts was "full of misinformation," says he and Penelas wrote a reply over the phone that same day and prevailed upon Herald editorial-page editor Jim Hampton to run the letter Monday since the commission vote was the next day. Chapman says he also drafted an angry fifteen-page letter to Dluhy and Holloway, but never sent it.

The plan's proponents don't talk much about the subject, but they are mindful they will probably face neighborhood opposition of some kind no matter where they decide to put the first homeless assistance center. Always in the back of their minds, no doubt, is the pitiful saga of Camillus House, one of Miami's most respected homeless programs. The City of Miami has attempted five times since 1985 to move the operation out of its downtown location on prime real estate. No one wanted it. Most recently the city arranged late last year to relocate Camillus House to a site in Allapattah, only to be faced with furious neighborhood protests. (Most of the county's homeless shelters already are in that area.) In the end, two commissioners rescinded their support of the move, which killed it. So the fewer battles the better, many trust members reason.

But once a large site is found, critics worry that the scale will be too big to effectively manage the diverse needs of the residents, or that the staff size and expertise necessary to manage such a venture will be much more expensive than the county can afford. The guidelines issued by the trust for creating the homeless assistance centers specify they should be planned along the lines of Orlando's "campus," with medical services and counseling, and with separate quarters for women and children, the mentally ill, and substance abusers. But critics say the Orlando experiment hasn't been operating long enough to gauge its effectiveness. Even with the best intentions, they add, Dade's project faces a great risk of succumbing to the warehouse syndrome.

Alex Penelas is determined to fight any such suggestion. "We rejected outright the concept of big-city shelters," he says. "Everybody agrees smaller is better. But we have to balance the need and the pressure we're getting from the courts and the community. We have to balance the economies of scale. We've got to get something done. And there are a lot of positive things going on. Our private-public partnership is unparalleled. There are some people who want to throw a wrench into it by saying they're not happy with the [homeless assistance centers]. Well, I'm not either. We're not committed to building all three and hopefully we'll be able to phase them out."

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