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As Hurricane Erin was moving slowly toward Miami on Tuesday, August 1, two buses and a van were making the rounds of Dade County's hurricane shelters. It was late afternoon, and 75 anxious people were running out of time to find a refuge from the storm. But despite having been told a short time earlier by a Red Cross representative that several shelters had room, the convoy was turned away from all four of the shelters where it stopped. All of the shelter operators said they were full. Several hours later, the 75 passengers were dropped off right back where they'd started: on the streets of downtown Miami.
By then, fortunately, the National Weather Service had made it clear that the storm would pass well to the north of Miami. "I knew the evacuation order was going to be lifted," says Livia Chamberlain-Garcia, who as director of the City of Miami's Office of Homeless Programs took the convoy on its fruitless quest. "So instead of making a fuss and making somebody open a special shelter for us, I just let them out."
At 10:30 that night, Sergio Gonzalez, executive director of the Dade County Homeless Trust, got a call at home from the Red Cross. A group of homeless people had been taken in by a shelter in Allapattah earlier that day, and the Red Cross wanted Gonzalez to send transportation to take them "home" now that the danger had passed. He refused. The other evacuees in the shelter, Gonzalez learned, were allowed to stay the night.
The next day Gonzalez composed a two-and-a-half-page memo to Kate Hale, Metro-Dade's director of emergency operations, noting the "immense amount of frustration" he experienced during the emergency. (Hale was ousted from her post earlier this week, in part because of inadequacies in the county's emergency shelters.) He described the earlier rush from shelter to shelter: "In one instance we were informed by the Red Cross representative that there was capacity for 75 homeless persons in a North Dade shelter. After transporting the homeless persons from the City of Miami in the late hours of the day, Livia Chamberlain-Garcia was told upon arrival that there was no more space for her folks. She was then told that there was space at another shelter and that a call had been made to ensure that the homeless persons would be accepted. Upon arriving at that shelter, Livia was informed that there was no more space for the 75 homeless persons.
"In several instances, I was informed that there was hesitation by the shelter operators to accept large numbers of homeless persons, or homeless persons in general," Gonzalez went on, concluding, "I believe that our experience with Hurricane Erin requires a review of the emergency plan with respect to homeless persons."
Gonzalez is sensitive to the fact that when it comes to the homeless, emergency strategists face a unique set of circumstances. "I understand some of these folks can be a problem," he acknowledges. "Some of them have issues around substance abuse or mental illness. So I understand the concern if you had them staying in the same place as families and children. The problem is, we need some room to put these folks. An assessment needs to be made as to whether room should be made available in the regular emergency shelters or if there's a need for a separate shelter."
Luis Garcia, director of emergency services for the Greater Miami chapter of the American Red Cross, agrees that the matter must be addressed, but he is unclear as to exactly how. "We're still looking into some of those issues, that either [homeless people] were turned away or the shelters were full. We don't want to treat them differently, we don't want to open up separate shelters for them, because they are part of this community. But we do want to make sure there's somebody there who understands their problems and where they're coming from. We've had some conversations about this with homeless providers and we're looking at adding [providers] to our communications network."
Livia Chamberlain-Garcia says she prefers to look at the ordeal as a lesson in how to avoid the same problems the next time a hurricane threatens. "I'm trying to get something positive out of it," Chamberlain-Garcia says. "If you start sniping, there'll be hard feelings. I just don't want it to happen again.