Forgotten but Not Gone

The last of the FEMA trailer occupants are now rehoused. The question is: For how long?

There's a whole lot of back-slapping going on among hurricane-recovery officials these days. On February 24, two and a half years after Hurricane Andrew displaced about 250,000 South Floridians, the last residents of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mobile homes moved out of the Coral Roc Mobile Home Park just north of Homestead in South Dade. The achievement was the result of an eleventh-hour push to find permanent housing for hurricane victims who were still having trouble getting out from under the FEMA umbrella. "It was an incredible testimony to the partnership and cooperative effort among a variety of agencies," boasts Deborah Curtin, who directed Metro's hurricane recovery team and coordinated the county's participation in the rehousing effort. "It demonstrated the best of what government can do."

Not everyone is bursting with satisfaction. Many social service workers and homeless advocates familiar with the troubled population of the FEMA trailer parks have been arguing for months that more than a new place to live, the hardest-to-house residents needed help A and lots of it. (The conflict was the subject of "The Gray Area," a New Times cover story published November 24, 1994.) Now, the advocates say, many of those same people are sure to wind up on the street. "Moving out of the mobile homes into an apartment doesn't guarantee a thing," argues Mary Frances Weldon, the homeless-advocate liaison for the Christian Community Service Agency, "except that they got a roof over their head until their life falls apart."

While in operation, the FEMA housing project accommodated more than 3500 families in fifteen mobile-home parks around Dade. Although federal law requires FEMA to provide only eighteen months of relief services in a disaster area, the agency received Congressional approval to extend its stay by one year. As recently as November, 283 families remained in the two existing parks, Coral Roc and the nearby Sunrise Mobile Home Park. And many weren't going anywhere fast. Some of the residents had criminal records. They suffered substance-abuse problems, or serious physical or mental ailments. They were opportunistic freeloaders, or were rendered inert by hopelessness. Some families were just too large to fit into available public housing units.

To rehouse the remaining residents, local, federal, and state officials launched a multiagency blitz, which Otis Pitts, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), dubbed "a full-court press." By this past month, staffers were working seven days a week to clear out the parks by Congress's February 25th deadline. To honor the accomplishment, HUD threw a "Down to Zero Rehousing Celebration" for the people who took part in the effort.

South Dade's social-service providers and homeless advocates aren't doing any celebrating. This past summer, they had begun developing plans to saturate the trailer parks with an intensive program of social services, in the belief that the parks presented a convenient test case for the kind of assistance required when dealing with people on the verge of homelessness. But funding and implementation of such a strategy was delayed by bureaucratic dilly-dallying and by disagreement about who should bear legal and financial responsibility.

There was cause for some optimism in December, when the Dade County Commission approved the reallocation of federal home-building funds for a program of transitional housing and case management. Everyone expected the money was going to fund a then-pending proposal by the South Dade Homeless Task Force, a coalition of South Dade nonprofit and church agencies. The task force's plan was to hire a staff of professional social workers to provide case management for up to 85 families. In addition, the plan suggested relocating the remaining trailer park population to transitional mobile homes the task force would manage. FEMA proposed to donate trailers to the county for the purpose.

But in January, Armando Vidal, the incoming county manager, nixed the plan. "The former and present county managers' position was that trailers were not part of our permanent housing solution," explains Curtin, who is now director of Team Metro, a citizen-outreach agency run by the county. "The general sense was that this would create a program that would not end after a year or two. [Vidal] formally made the decision that we would just put the pedal to the metal and find suitable housing for all the families." (Vidal did not return phone calls requesting comment.)

A majority of the last several hundred families went into public housing, Curtin says; the next-largest group accepted federal Section 8 vouchers. Others moved into private rentals without subsidy or bought their own homes. Some purchased from the federal government the trailers they'd been living in. "One person was arrested and jailed, so he was housed courtesy of another institution," Curtin notes. "There was not one person at the end who did not go somewhere."

Social workers praise the effort but contend that it was misdirected: Since the residents didn't receive intensive case management before they left the parks, many of them are going to wind up certifiably homeless in a way that Metro will finally understand.

"I am thrilled that FEMA left no one on the street," says Beth Von Werne, director of case management and family services in Dade and Monroe counties for the Lutheran Ministries of Florida. "I'm just concerned that three or four months down the road, the [social-service] agencies that have been here all along are going to be left holding the bag. When someone needs a door to knock on, they're not going to knock on FEMA's door. They're not going to knock on Deborah Curtin's door. They're going to knock on our door." She reiterates the view that Metro missed an opportunity to try to address this troubled population all in one place at one time.

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