Brother, Can You Spare a One-Dollar County-Issued Food Voucher?

Metro's new program for the homeless aims beyond the quick fix. But does it give short shrift to pressing needs?

At lunchtime most weekdays, Alan Greer walks the few blocks from his law office near the downtown courthouses to the Miami Club or the Bankers Club and, like every other professional who ventures onto the noonday streets, he encounters a good number of panhandlers eager to share his lunch money. He has always given a little cash to anyone who asked, Greer says; some regulars even wait for him along his customary routes. So imagine the consternation a month ago, when Greer's friends in need began to receive printed pieces of paper instead of the anticipated legal tender.

"When I first started doing it, I had to stop and explain to everyone," says the attorney, who traded a big chunk of change for 200 one-dollar vouchers, issued by the county and redeemable for food and other essentials. "They look at you a little strangely -- they're skeptical. But now most of them know what the vouchers are. You can give five or ten away, easy, any time you go from the courthouse to Biscayne."

The project is the brainchild of Andy Menendez, director of the Dade County Office of Homeless Programs, who got the idea after hearing success stories about voucher programs in such cities as Berkeley and Philadelphia. The vouchers enable compassionate citizens to donate directly (albeit still without the benefit of a tax deduction) without worrying that their charity might be spent on drugs or booze. "When most people encounter a person asking for money, their first reaction is to open up their wallet, but after a while they know better," says Menendez. "There's always going to be the scammers out on the street, and this will help to lessen that type."

Early on, Menendez managed to secure cooperation from the Publix chain, which agreed to extend credit for gift certificates. Response from other local businesses was lukewarm at best. By the time vouchers went on sale to the charitable public in late November, Menendez had only been able to add Burger King and McDonald's to his roster. And the fast-food giants declined to redeem the vouchers directly or to extend credit; Menendez had to front money for the purchase of gift certificates, instead, at full price.

Local Burger King spokeswoman Lisa Demakos says her corporation turned down the county's request because it would be too cumbersome for franchises to implement accounting procedures for reimbursement. Spokespeople from the regional McDonald's office in Boca Raton claim that Menendez never contacted them about a voucher program.

"I spoke to many other corporate citizens in our community," Menendez recalls. "They said, 'No thanks.' I realized a white knight wasn't going to come along to help me get this off the ground."

Instead, Menendez and his staff did a little creative panhandling themselves, showing up at charity events and asking for donations. Twice they gathered at a gas station and washed cars in exchange for contributions. In all they raised about $1500, enough to cover the cost of printing 2000 vouchers and to buy the fast-food gift certificates. The first printing sold out quickly. "In the long run," Menendez notes optimistically, "if we continue to do this the right way, it will bring more businesses into the program."

To judge from the project's first month, Menendez is facing a mighty long run. So far, few individuals have followed Alan Greer's lead. Until this past Thursday, in fact, not a single voucher had been redeemed. (On that afternoon, according to caseworker Cynthia Hall, six people brought in twenty vouchers apiece, redeemed for $120 worth of gift certificates from Publix.)

The slow start could be due to the elaborate process required for redemption. A person could starve before he managed to actually convert a voucher into food. The first hurdle: Vouchers are redeemable only in multiples of five. The second: The vouchers must be presented to workers at the offices of the county's Homeless Assistance Project, where case managers exchange them for fast-food gift certificates or gift certificates redeemable at Publix for anything except alcohol or tobacco. A laborious process at best. Even worse, the project's offices, located in trailers under I-395 downtown, just west of Biscayne Boulevard, were burglarized and ransacked over Christmas weekend. Vouchers must now be brought to Menendez's Office of Homeless Programs on the 27th floor of the Dade County Government Center on NW First Street. Unfortunately, there are no signs on the trailers advising voucher-holders of this fact.

"They've added a lot of steps for homeless people who can't keep their lives together," observes Amy Maddock, director of Berkeley Cares, the nonprofit corporation that founded the program in that California city. Berkeley, by contrast, imposes no minimum for redeeming vouchers, which are sold in 25-cent denominations. (Berkeley Cares steered clear of a larger base amount, figuring it would allow voucher-givers less flexibility and might make panhandling seem lucrative.) Moreover, in Berkeley, a city less than one-fourth the size of Miami, vouchers are nearly always directly redeemable for goods, at 40 sites -- independent markets, restaurants, and coin laundries -- not to mention chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Safeway grocery stores, and some public transportation services.

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