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.

Penelas has appointed a committee (including Stephen Holloway, one of the plan's most vocal critics) to study options for building more low-income housing -- another 2500 units within the next three years -- that can be made available for homeless people. This past September, Penelas and trust executive director Sergio Gonzalez were part of a local contingent that went to Washington to meet with the Dade congressional delegation, federal housing officials, and national homeless organizations, several of which had expressed concerns about Miami's plan. Gonzalez says the purpose of their trip was to introduce themselves and to try to build support for the plan. (Penelas and Gonzalez also recently met with HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros in a bid to have Dade's plan declared one of twenty national models in a newly announced homeless initiative, and thus eligible for millions of dollars in housing aid.)

Their assurances haven't assuaged the doubts of many local and national organizations that work with the homeless. "I don't think a 500-bed shelter is workable in any circumstance," argues Julie Sandorf, executive director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a New York-based nonprofit organization that raises money and supplies technical assistance to groups providing permanent housing for the homeless. "What's happened in other cities in the country is they've become a huge cash drain, have not resulted in improving the quality of life of the people who live there, nor solve the problems of people living on the street. There's got to be an endgame. If you have limited resources, you have to think, what's the best use of those resources?"

Sandorf met with some local officials this past June to discuss assisting Miami's entry into the homeless housing arena. The plan's concentration of resources on short-term shelters, however, was a strategy her corporation doesn't support. Neither will that strategy attract much aid from the government. Homeless experts note that most of the coveted federal housing aid available for local homeless programs now goes to innovative transitional and permanent housing, and practically none to so-called emergency, or short-term, housing.

Regardless of potential shortcomings of the Dade County plan, many of the approximately 50 nonprofits here who exist month to month, hand-to-mouth, know that the potential benefits also are tremendous. With $3.1 million allotted to expand existing services the first year, and another $2 million reserve fund Penelas says will go to existing providers if it isn't needed elsewhere, organizations that scrape by on annual budgets of a few hundred thousand dollars stand to get some help for programs they've never been able to afford.

Beth Lang, executive director of Better Way of Miami and a member of the Homeless Trust's executive committee, says she's not concerned the homeless plan may not be the best possible; it's the best Miami has done so far. "It's a working document to move forward with to get a system of services for the homeless," says Lang, a nurse and social worker. "For many, many years I've seen what's happened down here. The providers never got one solid plan off the ground. Nothing's been coordinated, and we all goddamn barely make it." Better Way, a unique six-month rehabilitation program for homeless men with substance-abuse problems, is housed in a few frayed brick buildings on tree-shaded property along NW 28th Street that it rents from the City of Miami for one dollar per year. The organization was founded ten years ago by ten recovering addicts; it currently has living space for 30, although its policy is to turn no one away, which often stretches its resources to the breaking point.

Similarly, the New Life Family Center, the only place in Dade County where homeless families can stay together, won't be able to open its doors next year if it doesn't receive $75,000 from somewhere, says director Mitchell Wallick. Yet his program, which requires adults to work inside the small complex of buildings on NW First Avenue and 36th Street for "token money" and conducts special schooling for children, is recognized as one of the most successful of its kind in the nation. Wallick, like Beth Lang, is a member of the Dade Homeless Trust and is determined to see that the plan succeeds. "I am a realist," Wallick says. "I am willing to accept a slice of bread because I'm hungry, when I'd rather have a piece of chocolate cake."

Lang and Wallick are among the providers who stand a good chance of securing a contract to provide specialized services within the homeless assistance centers, or funding to expand their present capacities (contracts will be awarded by bid). But for Dade County's service providers in general, there is a downside to this imminent windfall. Already many say their fundraising has suffered because their traditional private sources mistakenly believe the new food and beverage tax will fund all homeless services.

Potentially more affecting is the advent of the Community Partnership for Homeless (CPH), the new nonprofit agency formed by Alvah Chapman specifically to bid on the contract to secure a site, build and operate the homeless assistance centers, and to raise money from private sources. Though bidding is open to any nonprofit charitable organization, no one has any illusions about who the winner will be. Chapman's corporation, with a 52-person board of directors that includes many of the county's most prominent citizens, may be the only organization with the resources to manage such a broad undertaking -- and to raise $8.5 million in private funds over the next three years, as the agency also will be required to do. Several nonprofit homeless service organizations discussed forming a consortium to bid on the work, but none materialized. The trust will decide the winning bid on November 10; final approval must be made by the county commission at its regular meeting on November 16 or December 7. Two months ago Chapman sent out 900 letters seeking volunteers to help coordinate every aspect of the task. More than 200 responded, and committees were formed to address everything from scouting sites to recruiting support groups from communities where centers will be built.

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