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It wasn't quite the night before Christmas; the holiday was still eight days off. But there was plenty of stirring in the upper reaches of the Metro-Dade Government Center on Friday, December 17.
The bureaucrats were playing host to a most unlikely guest. He appeared on the 27th floor -- looking underfed, unwashed, and thickly whiskered -- at about 5:00 p.m., when most county employees were leaving the building. His story was achingly familiar. Blown out of his home by Hurricane Andrew, he had spent more than a year trying to get back on his feet. He needed a job and a place to stay for the night, and he had heard that help might be available on the 27th floor, home to the offices of the Dade Homeless Trust. To make matters worse, he had recently undergone dental surgery and was in a great deal of pain.
Owing to the hour, all the social workers had departed. The only people left were a half-dozen employees from the Office of Management and Budget, who were working overtime on year-end projects. Unaccustomed to resolving such quandaries, the number-crunchers were nevertheless determined to help out. "We were all feeling the Christmas spirit," one budget analyst recalls. "And it was obvious the holidays were hitting this man pretty hard. He asked if we needed any janitors, if there was any work he could do for us. At one point, he just broke down crying."
While the budget workers spent a few minutes rifling through county directories to locate a shelter, they soon realized their best bet was to check in with Andy Menendez, Dade's director of homeless programs. The homeless man was ecstatic at the prospect. "Hey, I read about [Menendez]," he said. "He's the guy who is trying to get us services and stuff."
A woman was dispatched to call upstairs and explain the situation. When she discovered that the boss himself was in, she figured she was in luck.
It would be nice to envision Menendez, the man heading the county's newly energized effort to erase homelessness, as compassion-with-a-necktie, the sort of fellow who would relish the chance to play Santa to one of his down-and-out flock. But, alas, on this night the sometimes intense Menendez was apparently feeling more like a Grinch.
According to three people who were working late, Menendez's response was an emphatic humbug: It's after 5:00 p.m., he reportedly scolded the caller. I'm leaving. You people handle this!.
When the woman told her colleagues about the brush-off, they were stunned, and one of her superiors suggested that a personal visit to Menendez might help impress upon him the urgent nature of the situation. He and the woman who had placed the call promptly zipped up to the 29th floor. But by the time they reached Menendez's enclave, Dade's homeless czar was gone, having apparently already escaped down a different elevator.
"That sonofabitch just raced out of the building. It must have taken him twenty seconds," says one of those present. "And all we wanted was to get this guy referred somewhere for the night. It would have taken Andy maybe a minute of his time, because he knows who to call. We didn't have a clue." In the end, the gentleman was given one of Menendez's business cards and directions to a downtown shelter and was politely escorted out of the building.
Those who saw the scene unfold were so furious at Menendez that they later related the incident, informally, to an assistant county manager. "He left a bunch of people who were ready to strangle him," claims one witness. "What he did was cold." Like others interviewed for this article, this budget worker refused to give his name, saying he fears he might soon be jobless if he publicly insults Dade's politically connected homeless honcho.
Menendez himself was on vacation this past week. He was delivered at least two messages requesting comment for this article, to which he did not respond.
One worker in the Office of Homeless Programs, who declined to be quoted by name, claims Menendez did try to help: "He gave the [budget workers] the address to Camillus House."
Dade homeless czar Andy Menendez squandered the chance to play Santa this Christmas season.