By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Going south on U.S. 1 near SW 220th Street, off to the right in a grassy clearing down a scarcely paved road from the Disco South Inn and a ramshackle grocery braced by metal bars that stretch over every gap in its faded wood faaade, you can see Pastor Bonny Coney's big blue-and-white-striped tent. On Sundays the preaching and testifying and singing pulsate from the tent on sound waves that drift upward into the tall pines and palms or lightly graze the ears of the crack and heroin dealers who congregate around the scarred buildings that 40 years ago were part of a thriving business district in the South Dade community known as Goulds.
Two whimsically lettered wood signs proclaiming "Believers in Christ" have been pounded into the ground at either end of Pastor Coney's tent. Inside, the ground is completely covered by beige carpet remnants, atop which rows of rusty metal folding chairs have been arranged to face a raised area where a clear acrylic podium stands in front of four decaying upholstered chairs, a drum set, and loudspeakers. The backdrop is a large poster that depicts bold red words scrolled across an open Bible: "'Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.' A 1 John 4:4." Despite a pair of generator-powered fans, the heat is stifling.
Pastor Coney is beside the podium in his chocolate-color double-breasted suit, crying and prancing. "What manner of love! What manner of love!" he yells into his hand-held microphone. "What manner of love! Glory to God! While we were yet sinners -- hallelujah! -- He came -- yes He did!" The pastor stomps, bends over, and hollers rhythmically, his lungs expelling a loud grunt after each phrase. "What love hafta do with it! HUNH! I heard Tina Turner say, 'What love hafta do with it.' Yes, Lord. HUNH! Love had something to do with it! He was crucified! HUNH! And He went down to Hell! HUNH! And on the third day He rose! HUNH! All power! All power!" His voice rises to a piercing chant. "ALL POWER! HUNH! IS IN MY HAND. HUNH! YES, LORD. THAT'S WHAT LOVE HAD TO DO WITH IT! I GOT A FRIEEEEEEEEND! HE SAYS: 'I WILL BE WITH YOU, EVEN UNTO THE END OF THE WORLD!' THAT FRIEND IS JESUS! IS JESUS!" The speakers fairly steam in the wet heat.
The audience is mostly women, about fifteen of them, dressed elaborately in defiance of the weather in hats and ruffled jackets and patterned vests. Several have lived or are still living in one of the trailers arranged in a haphazard ring around the clearing. Others, while they were crack-addicted, had lived among the dealers and prostitutes plying their trades just a few blocks away. They came to Pastor Coney and he took them in, and now they're lifting their hands to Heaven.
Coney lets out a whoosh of amplified breath, stands hand on hip, then resumes calmly, rhythmically, his voice building again. "On this week, the county -- I'm talking about Dade County -- came down and said, 'Pastor Coney, we're gonna . . . close you down, we're gonna take your people . . . somewhere. Somewhere. Put 'em in a shelter.' I said, 'No, no.' I said, 'God, deliver us.' THEY ARE IN A SHELTER!"
The women sitting on the rusty chairs clap and call out, "Yes, Lord. Praise God!" Pastor Coney wipes his face with a white cloth.
"I HAD TO STAND. I HAD TO STAND AGAINST THEM! We lost two or three . . . they gone back on crack cocaine. I seen one of the brothers A you know him A down on the street all drunk. BUT DO YOU KNOW WHAT? THESE PEOPLE HAVE TO PAY FOR THAT. YOU GOTTA STAND FAST. UNMOVABLE!" He wheels his left arm back like a windmill, crouches, insists, anguished: "DON'T DROP YOUR GUAAAAAARD! I'M NOT WORRIED . . . BECAUSE THE DEVIL'S DOING HIS JOB!"
Coney's cluster of sixteen battered trailers, a remnant of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, is the target of Dade officials who for more than a year have been warning the pastor that his so-called Dade Outreach Center is in violation of myriad zoning ordinances. Despite repeated attempts by community leaders and social-service workers to help Coney comply, the center has no running water, no sewers, no electricity, and none of the operating permits or licenses the county and state require. Coney has promised to purchase the land and build a church on it, but Dade officials have lost patience. In April they filed misdemeanor criminal charges -- operating a church without a proper public hearing, improper disposal of waste, et cetera. Having been granted several extensions, Coney is scheduled to stand trial next month.
So the unsettled souls in Coney's camp will again be displaced. Within Goulds, the close-knit community of 7000 where Coney and many of his flock grew up, the standoff has been swept up in a larger, often bitter conflict that emerged out of Andrew's winds. At its core, the rivalry is between Goulds's established power elite and a newly organizing collection of residents bent on sharing that power. Like the homeless people clustered in the impermanent shade of Coney's tent church, all of the citizens of Goulds are in some ways displaced, maneuvering for position in the communal history of their 90-year-old enclave.
On the other side of U.S. 1, several miles east of Coney's tent, is an entirely different sort of ministry to the poor. The twenty-year-old Community Health of South Dade Inc. (CHI) building is surrounded by neatly landscaped parking areas, patrolled by security guards, and bounded by a tall chain-link fence. Inside the blocky single-story structure, signs in English, Spanish, and Creole direct patients to physical, dental, and mental-health treatment offices. The gray floors and walls are shiny and clean; waiting areas are equipped with drinking fountains and color TV sets mounted onto the walls. In the bathrooms, toilets flush themselves and water faucets turn on and off without a touch. The setting is reminiscent of a shopping mall.
Here Odell Johns reigns supreme. Chairman of the board of the $21 million-per-year nonprofit agency, the 64-year-old Johns can't strut down the bustling hallways without nurses and other workers greeting him deferentially. A small, slender man with close-cropped graying hair and a mustache, Johns walks like the military man he used to be: straight-backed, square-shouldered, chest out. Groomed and dressed immaculately, right down to socks that match the stripes on his shirt, he gives no hint of the weekly kidney dialysis treatments he must undergo. As he speaks, he summons secretaries to provide him with information, look up phone numbers, fill in memory gaps, his manner a blend of ironic self-deprecation and braggadocio. Having grown up in the South during the Thirties and Forties, when white men were the arbiters at all levels of society, he has learned to conceal his individuality. "They just saw a little black person who couldn't be quiet," he remarks. "Then when I got things the way I wanted 'em, they came to find out Odell Johns got a doctorate of law!" The last words are italicized with glee.
Though he never did practice law, Johns has been the most powerful man in Goulds for a long time, having plied the equally persuasive art of politicking. Back in the early Seventies, he was largely responsible for the creation of CHI. South Dade's first facility for health care for the indigent now has 12 locations and more than 400 employees. As chairman of the Goulds citizens' advisory council of the Metro-Dade Community Action Agency (CAA) for the past fifteen years, Johns has been instrumental in channeling hundreds of thousands of county dollars to the community to build low-income housing, improve parks, install sewers, and pave streets.
Johns and his wife Juanita, a retired middle-school teacher, moved to nearby Saga Bay in 1976, but he has owned property in the neighborhood since 1959, when he arrived with his first wife. All told, he owns about a dozen rental properties in and around Goulds. Two are adjacent fourplexes in the blighted section of central Goulds that locals call the Stump, or the Hole, or the Stump-hole, a bleak area roughly between SW 220th and 227th streets and SW 115th and 117th avenues where crime is high and drugs are plentiful. Last year he rented the fourplexes to CHI for use as temporary housing for sixteen homeless people. CHI had won a grant from the Dade County Homeless Trust to operate homeless programs in Johns's fourplexes and in another apartment building in separate residential areas of Goulds -- at the time the only nonemergency housing available for the homeless in South Dade.
Just west of Pastor Coney's tent, across a weedy stretch, is a low wood-frame gray house with a porch. Amid the encroaching foliage, it looks long abandoned. In fact, though, it has been vacant only since mid-August. In front is a large sign: MOANN H. EVERETT CARE CENTER. SERVING THE SICK, HOMELESS AND ELDERLY SINCE 1916.
Moann Everett was the mother of the 74-year-old Lydia Walker, who lives not far from here, in a ranch-style home with coral-pink flowers growing in front and a vaguely violin-shape swimming pool in back. Also in back, near a satellite dish, is a big brown trailer, the kind that hooks up to a truck. Painted on the side of the trailer in large white letters are these words: WALKER'S FUNERAL HOME PORTABLE VISITATION ROOM.
"After the hurricane there was no place -- I mean no place -- to lay out bodies," explains Walker. Her dark skin is barely wrinkled. Her opaque eyes are shadowed by glasses. "I came up with the idea of using this mobile unit. It's really nice. Really nice. We did it all in this dark red velvet."
Though Lydia Walker was an entrepreneur when it was rare for any black person -- let alone a woman -- to own a business in South Dade, she has retreated from the energetic public life she used to lead. "I am bitter," she admits without hesitation, cocking her head and looking up sideways as if trying to avoid the memories.
After the hurricane, the most important people in South Dade met regularly at Walker's house to develop and implement a strategy for reconstructing the area, particularly the black communities. She was the secretary for the South Dade Alliance for Black Neighborhood Development. (Having since dropped the "Black," the group is now a powerful interracial assemblage of politically connected professionals from all around the county.) But Walker had a bitter falling-out with fellow officers over her proposal to secure funding to convert one of her properties into a day-care center.
Another property, Walker's Funeral Home on SW 216th Street, was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew and never rebuilt. Though it was the only funeral home in Goulds, Walker says it would be a waste of money to fix up the place. Crackheads have stripped the mirror-paneled interior of the elegant parlor down to the wiring in the walls.
Perhaps Walker's greatest disappointment resulted from her dream of building a 180-bed nursing home in east Goulds. In 1983, after she had bought the land, secured authorization, and broken ground, the state canceled her permit because of a delay in financing. Worse, it wasn't Walker but a former consultant to the project who received notification of the cancellation. Whereupon, she says, the consultant, a white man, offered to pay her to let him take over the project. She refused.
The Moann H. Everett Care Center, too, is testimony to a broken dream. When Everett built the place in 1951 with money Lydia had been saving to build a beauty salon, she called it Goulds Nursing Home. When Lydia came home from the army as a newlywed, her mother asked her to handle bookkeeping for the home. (Moann had dropped out of school in the sixth grade, whereas Lydia had a nursing degree from Florida A & M). Everett ran the home until she had a heart attack in 1977, whereupon Lydia's sister Johnnie Mae Mitchell took over. Lydia continued to do the paperwork, and after Everett died in 1979, the home was renamed after her. Walker became the sole administrator in 1989, but a succession of post-Andrew inspections revealed several code violations that cost her some $10,000 to repair. She filed for bankruptcy, and the Florida Health Care Administration shut down the home this past August, after discovering the building's air-conditioning didn't work.
Walker has written several papers about Goulds history and a small volume about the adjacent neighborhood of Princeton. One of her favorite topics is her father, Johnny "Catman" Everett, a small, fierce man who once held three Klansmen captive after they broke into the family's house to lynch him. According to Walker, the attempted lynching stemmed from Catman's refusal to unload a rum boat during Prohibition -- not because liquor was contraband but because the boat owners didn't plan to pay him for his work. She has a framed black-and-white photograph of that family house, a precariously leaning wooden structure that once stood in the field behind the Goulds Nursing Home.
These days Lydia Walker pursues her long-time hobby, pinochle, playing most evenings at home or in tournaments throughout the state. An elaborate foot-high trophy, a golden hand spreading a golden hand of cards at its top, stands in her living room. She is writing her autobiography, which she has already titled It's a Poor Rat with One Hole, after one of her father's favorite sayings. Catman spoke from experience, Walker says: He kept another woman and a whole other family in Princeton.
Lana Floyd doesn't think a low-income, minority locality such as Goulds is going to solve any of its problems by allowing outsiders to build government-subsidized housing or import the homeless to live in residential areas. "I know there's a need to take care of homeless people," she says, repeating with a determined set to her jaw the argument heard in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods nationwide. "But we shouldn't be the ones to get facilities that other communities wouldn't stand for. You're not going to see one of these places in Coral Gables. If we're not careful, we're going to end up looking like part of Overtown."
A secretary at the Metro-Dade Police Department's Doral station, Floyd was born in Alabama but grew up in Goulds, and is a 1970 graduate of Mays High, which until desegregation began in 1967 was the only South Dade high school open to black students. (Mays is now a middle school.)
Floyd wasn't active in community affairs until the spring of 1994, when she and her neighbors learned that the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services' Juvenile Justice division intended to remodel a compound near their homes into a residential program for criminal offenders. Before the hurricane, it had housed cerebral palsy patients. Floyd helped form the Homeowners Association of Goulds in June of 1994 and began a campaign against the program. She wrote letters to state officials, complaining about what her association saw as a lack of community support for the project. Then she wrote more letters, complaining about rude and condescending treatment she received from the recipients of the first batch. The juvenile justice department eventually agreed to house only 15 girls at the site, not 33 boys and girls as originally planned.
That same summer, Floyd was elected to the Goulds citizens' advisory council for the Community Action Agency -- the group chaired by Odell Johns. When she found out about the two CHI homeless facilities, they were already operating. She was angry that the Dade Homeless Trust had awarded the contract with no public hearing. She questioned whether it was appropriate for Johns to rent property to his own corporation. And when she found out that several members of the CHI board also belonged to the board of the nonprofit corporation that owned the site of the other homeless facility, she said that, too, amounted to a conflict of interest.
Floyd protested to the CHI and the Homeless Trust and requested from both agencies information about the programs. She consulted the Dade County Attorney's Office, which told her informally that as long as Johns's fellow CHI board members knew about his financial involvement (he was paid $28,800 in rent; CHI also paid the electricity and sewage bills for the properties), he probably wasn't in violation of the state's conflict-of-interest statute. But by then -- around March of this year -- Floyd's numerous challenges, which had expanded to include two HRS facilities in residential areas, had begun to annoy Odell Johns.
"Everybody," he says, "had warned Lana not to play with Odell."
Johns embarked upon his own campaign, dispatching a series of disparaging communiques to practically everyone in the county bureaucracy with whom Floyd had any contact. In a March 23 letter to Metro-Dade Police Department Director Fred Taylor, Johns alleged that Floyd had used county time to verbally harass people involved in the projects she opposed. The letter also pointed out that Floyd had conducted business for her homeowners association on an office fax machine and attended at least three public meetings during working hours. She had, according to Johns, exhibited a "disrespectful attitude and lack of professionalism," particularly toward Commissioner Dennis Moss (whose district includes Goulds), showing "utter disregard or respect for him or his position as her employer." Johns attached to the letter copies of a homeowners association newsletter critical of a new apartment complex being constructed in Goulds, a clip from the Cutler Courier in which Floyd castigated Moss for having recused himself from the commission's vote approving the juvenile justice center, copies of several letters Floyd had sent to CHI and other organizations in which she listed her office phone number, and a copy of a letter addressed to him from prominent Perrine businessman and CAA advisory council member Freddie Bowe expressing "deep concern [about] . . . the outrageous and disgusting conduct exemplified by Ms. Floyd on March 1, 1995 at our regular meeting." (Floyd had read a statement to the committee alleging that her First Amendment rights had been violated and challenging Johns -- though not by name -- to "please have your facts straight" if he wanted to continue contacting her employer.)
In an April 18 letter to Hilda Fernandez, assistant director of the Homeless Trust, Floyd described the barrage of accusations made to her supervisors by Johns and requested an audit of the two CHI homeless programs the trust was funding. "I will not attempt to answer any of these allegations only to say that because I had the audacity to ask what I consider logical questions, Mr. Johns has been compelled to contact my employer . . . because of my involvement in my community."
Last week Johns delivered to Lillie Williams, the Dade County chair of the CAA, a three-page missive repeating his charges about Floyd's "illogical and irrational" assertions and her "disgusting" use of county time. He sent copies to twenty other county officials and community leaders as well as to the Metro-Dade Police Department's internal affairs unit, which he encouraged to "monitor and hopefully mitigate some of her continued ridiculousness."
Why would an influential, highly respected man such as Odell Johns react so passionately to criticism and scrutiny from a neophyte gadfly? "I got tired of it," he explains disdainfully, then warms to the question. "I maintain an extremely low profile personally, but when attacked I can come out and fight. The question is, 'Who is she? What has she done?'" His voice takes on a faintly ecclesiastical inflection. "I've fought with the best of 'em, and to have to put up with a little noisemaker like Lana -- gets me."
Odell Johns's first fight in South Dade was covered by the national media. In the late Sixties, when black students were sent to all-white South Dade Senior High as part of the county's effort at desegregation, the school's teams were called the Rebels, the fight song was "Dixie," and the Confederate flag was raised out front. Tenth-grader Otis Wallace, one of South Dade High's first black students and now mayor of Florida City, helped form Students Organized for Unity and Liberty (SOUL), which petitioned the school board to get rid of the Confederate symbols.
After signing up to play trombone in the marching band, Wallace had objected to the fight song and the Confederate soldier garb. "I refused to wear the uniform, and as a result they flunked me in band." he recalls. The issue became so heated that outspoken black students and residents received death threats. The Stars and Bars flew everywhere, white kids came to school with rifles in the back of their pickups, and a black dummy hanging from the greased flagpole greeted the minority students one morning. Many black parents' white employers threatened to fire them if they allowed their children to continue to press for change.
"Mr. Johns and a group of parents got together and met with us students to support us," says Wallace. "Mr. Johns also met with parents on the other side. Mr. Johns was one of the true leaders at a time when it wasn't so easy to stand up."
The school board at first refused to comply with SOUL's demands, suggesting instead that the black students return to Mays High. But eventually, in the summer of 1970, after a couple of riots, the board ended the Rebel era at South Dade. Johns went on to champion other civil rights causes, including a long public battle to compel the Metro-Dade Police Department to hire and promote more black officers.
Johns's father, an army sergeant, had moved his family from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Miami shortly after Odell was born. Johns graduated from Booker T. Washington Senior High in 1949, earned a bachelor's degree at Florida A & M, joined the army, then returned to FAMU on the GI Bill for a law degree. While in school in Tallahassee, he relates, he and about a dozen cohorts were thrown in jail after a big dance-hall fight. When he calculated the huge sum their bondsman got for a few hours' work, he decided he'd do that, too. (He also took the bar exam, but flunked.) In 1959, at the age of 28, he came back to Miami to live with his father, who was a cook in Miami Beach.
Married and having started a family, Johns sought to buy a house in Brown Sub (now known as Brownsville), the neighborhood where he'd grown up. Too expensive, he thought. He looked south, in Richmond Heights, but felt you didn't get enough there for the money. "Then I came down through Goulds, and I met Mr. Arthur Mays," he remembers. "He said, 'They're building some houses over yonder.' He said, 'You ought to go over and take a look at them.'" Mays, a black sharecropper who became a wealthy landowner, and his wife Polly were among the community leaders who in 1914 started the first school for black children in South Dade. In 1935 they were also instrumental in establishing Goulds Elementary, the region's first permanent public school for blacks. (That building, now part of Mays Middle School, has been designated a historical site.) The Mayses went so far as to purchase school buses to transport children to the school from all over South Dade; Polly Mays drove a bus for fifteen years.
For about $10,000, Johns ended up with a bungalow -- the dominant architectural style in the area -- east of U.S. 1 in what is now central Goulds. He opened Odell's Bail Bonds in 1966 and a few years later founded Odell's Insurance Agency. Pastor Bonny Coney was a bail-bond client several times during the Seventies, Johns recalls, as a result of numerous arrests for theft, robbery, and drug possession before he turned to religion. ("He bailed probably 50 percent of Goulds out!" Coney confirms. "Not only me but a whole lot of other people who are [now] doing good.")
"When I first came to Goulds, I perceived the place as a little dirt-road, bean-picking community," Johns relates with a dismissive wave of a well-manicured hand. "I had them to beautify Allapattah [Road, a main thoroughfare]. That road was not paved, the red lights weren't there. I'm also the first chair of the CAA advisory board. I was on the first Legal Services board. The type personality I am is not the type from Goulds. I was raised in Overtown." He pauses, rubs the crease between his eyes where his amber-tinted glasses rest. "Basically it was a slight challenge [to initiate civic improvement]. I felt I had something to offer the community and that was my way of paying back what I get from the black community at large."
Johns had a natural gift for playing the political system, for cultivating officials who could channel pieces of the pie to South Dade. "I fought like the devil to have that [CHI] center in Goulds," he asserts. The system worked the other way, too: Politicians who needed voter support in South Dade had to know how to play Johns's game. Rep. John Cosgrove, a seven-term state legislator whose district used to include all of east Goulds (it's now just a small section), thinks of Johns as "the unofficial mayor of Goulds. I know him from several different perspectives," asserts Cosgrove, a lawyer who once handled a case for Johns's bail-bond business. "I've always found him to be accessible, fair, honest in every dealing I've had with him. He's got tremendous health problems and he takes a licking and keeps on ticking."
(Others see things differently: "He used to have a lot of power as far as elected officials," says a county staffer familiar with South Dade politics who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Everyone had to kiss his ring." Adds another observer, a Goulds resident who likewise asked not to be named: "The mention of his name evokes fear.")
Johns still bears some rancor toward former county commissioner Larry Hawkins, who lost a bid for re-election last year in the midst of a state ethics commission investigation into sexual-harassment allegations and his dealings with CHI, among other matters. "The first problem Larry Hawkins had was created by me," Johns boasts. "We went to the State Attorney on him." Johns alleged that as chairman of the Health and Human Services committee, Hawkins had threatened to slash funding to CHI if the agency didn't change its insurance carrier to a company Hawkins was working for. Hawkins explained that at the request of his mother (a CHI board member at the time), he merely had asked his company to review CHI's policy to determine whether it was excessive A which later prompted CHI's carrier to reduce its rate. As for funding cuts, Hawkins argued, most social-service appropriations were cut that year. Late last month, a Florida Commission on Ethics hearing officer found that Hawkins had sexually harassed three former employees and had performed some insurance business on county time, but that he had not acted improperly in the CHI insurance matter.
"Knowing as I do the political scheme of things," Johns says, "you know you have to deal with not only the branches but the roots. People like Lana Floyd are all branches of the Larry Hawkins tree." Floyd, Johns asserts, is a friend of Hawkins. (Floyd says she's never met the former commissioner.)
As Johns has gotten older, he has become slightly less visible in community affairs. He has glaucoma and no longer drives; a former secretary, with whom he keeps in walkie-talkie contact throughout the day, takes him around. He has retired from his insurance and bail-bond businesses. Now he runs Odell's Investment Corporation, which handles stocks, bonds, and real estate. In August several community organizations honored him at an Odell Johns Appreciation Dinner, where he was cited for "risking your life for the children of South Dade."
"Thirty years ago, Odell Johns was one of the first people willing to come out and say what was on his mind," says Lana Floyd. "It was refreshing at the time, but things are different now."
"I'm a part of the new generation," interjects William Beaty, a prelaw student at the University of Miami and a second-generation Goulds resident. "There's a small circle of people who've been doing everything for years, and I don't think they should dictate how things should be."
Beaty and Floyd are among the twenty or so members of the Homeowners Association of Goulds who have gathered to meet in a recreation center at Goulds Park, in a room filled with small tables, tiny blue plastic chairs, and children's arts and crafts. This month the members' voices must compete with the shouts from 300 kids practicing football and cheerleading outside.
"I'm part of the old generation," says Lillie Coleman with a laugh, "and it's heartbreaking to be born in a place and see it deteriorating the way it is." The talk touches on, as it does regularly in Goulds, the plight of Pastor Coney; most at the meeting think Coney is being unfairly ostracized by the powers that be. "These people will pounce on him, but the man -- all he says is he received a call," remarks the fiftyish Coleman, also a second-generation Gouldsian. "At least he's trying to help people with their problems, but what have they done? Nothing. They got all this money, but unfortunately people like Odell Johns brought in housing projects -- and that's what's causing all this crime."
"I wake up almost every night to the sound of gunfire," Beaty puts in, and urges his colleagues to drum up support for the crime-watch meetings that have commenced at Metro-Dade's new police storefront ministation in the Goulds Shopping Plaza.
Floyd, the association's president and writer of its uncommonly substantive newsletter, announces that a representative of the Liberty City-based nonprofit Tacolcy Economic Development Corporation has failed to put in a scheduled appearance; the guest had been slated to answer questions about a nearly completed Tacolcy apartment complex on SW 114th Avenue. The apartments and grounds look picturesque, but Floyd wants the developer's assurance that low-income tenants will be carefully selected and the property will remain well-kept. (The Tacolcy rep arrived after the meeting broke up; Floyd received the assurances she sought.)
When Floyd asks if anyone present supports the two CHI homeless facilities, few know what she's talking about. "It's for people on drugs or alcohol and who might have AIDS," she explains.
"We don't need that," someone says.
(Though Floyd and her colleagues had not yet been made aware, owing to a CHI staffer's error, the agency missed the Homeless Trust's September 13 deadline for funding renewal, so the homeless facilities will be closed by the end of December. Next year the money will go to three other South Dade homeless projects, one of which is in Goulds.)
J.L. Demps, president of the fledgling Goulds Optimist Club and treasurer of the Goulds Community Development Corporation, steps up. Wearing red shorts and a red Mays Rams T-shirt, a whistle strung around his neck, Demps proclaims that the football teams the club is sponsoring this year are a great success but says he has $50,000 worth of equipment he hasn't yet paid for. Also, he wants fellow association members to be aware, the Optimists aren't involved only in sports -- the owner of the Christian bookstore in Goulds Shopping Plaza teaches an "abstinence class" at a local church. Later he adds, "We got some people who want to come out and sit around and drink and smoke marijuana. We want to make sure we constantly have a police force out here, and that hasn't been happening."
Goulds was settled at the turn of the century while the Florida East Coast Railway was being built, as a community of railroad and agricultural workers. The town, never incorporated, was named after Lyman Goulds, a white railroad worker from Indiana. The population of Goulds, however, has always been mostly black. The majority of residents were railroad employees or sharecroppers who worked for white landowners, though a class of business owners and professionals began developing in the Forties. A post-Andrew study of the Goulds and Florida City areas commissioned by the Metro-Dade Office of Community Development found that more than half of all Goulds households have annual incomes below $15,000; the rest earn no more than $25,000. Much of the area still lacks sewers. More than half of the working-age population in Goulds is unemployed, the study's authors determined. "This statistic indicates an eventual 'meltdown' of the community if the employment problem is not solved," they wrote. Still, many of its residents maintain second- or third-generation ties to the community. The shared sense of history is nurtured by Goulds's twenty churches, most of of which are tiny neighborhood chapels; all but a few practice some strain of Pentecostalism.
One of those chapels, the Church of the Rock "Jesus Christ," Inc., was founded by Pastor Barbara Broussard. A few months ago, the pastor was crossing the railroad tracks in west Goulds, heading toward U.S. 1 in her black Hyundai, when she spotted a woman loitering on a corner. "I don't usually pick up people like that, but there was something about her that made me think she shouldn't be on the street," recalls Broussard, a tall, slender woman who talks and moves quickly, as if powered by a motor that's always revving. "When I came out of my car, she started crying. I said, 'What in the world are you doing out here?' She said, 'My children are hungry.' I asked her: 'Don't you get a [welfare] check?' And she said, 'Yes, but by three weeks the money's all gone.' I took her home, and there wasn't a stick of furniture in that apartment. She and her kids had been sleeping on the floor."
Six months ago April (a pseudonym) moved with her five children north from Naranja into the Mays Villas housing project. Stick-skinny, her hair up in a baseball cap, she was out near SW 220th Street and U.S. 1 that night because she could think of no other way to get money to feed her kids and her crack habit. "I was praying to God that someone would come and take me off this corner," she says, staring straight ahead with round, makeupless eyes. "Then I seen a car coming and I walked towards it. It was her -- she got out and stood there. I was glad, too, damn glad, excuse my language."
Broussard got on the phone straight away and rounded up donations of clothes and furniture. Now a worn brown sectional sofa and four chairs sit on the shiny linoleum floor of April's apartment; a kitchen table should arrive any day. April says she hasn't smoked crack since the night God answered her prayer. She and her two youngest boys have begun attending church with Broussard.
The pastor, who worked as a registered nurse for ten years until the Lord called her to the ministry a decade ago, suffers from her own habitation woes: The white, tangerine-trim house her church bought as its permanent site is locked up and vacant, its front yard overgrown. The neighbors, who live a football field away on either side of the church in this more rural southern section of Goulds, had complained about the church meetings. The fact that the neighbors are white and the church members are black may or may not have been a factor, but Broussard admits she's going to have to get a zoning variance for the property before the church can operate legally. Until the variance is awarded, meetings are held in a member's home.
Broussard is not disheartened; she points to a vacant lot across the street from the white house and says she hopes to buy that land, too, and build housing for the homeless. While she sympathizes with Pastor Bonny Coney and his zoning problems on the other side of U.S. 1, she feels it's important to abide by the county's rules. "I think he means well, but the Bible does say we are to obey the laws of the land. I'm going to trust God to work it out," she says, then adds, "Seem like when He tells me to do something, it's the hard way. This is something big we're fixing to do."
In Goulds, as in other South Dade neighborhoods, the months and years following Hurricane Andrew saw an increase in the number of citizens' groups organizing to compete for the rebuilding funds that were flowing in.
There aren't as many leaders as there are groups, however. The Goulds Community Development Corporation, for instance, was one of several community development corporations (CDCs) mandated by the county's post-Andrew recovery plan. The Goulds CDC, whose goal is to attract business to the area and help finance residential and commercial development, is part of an umbrella group, the Goulds Coalition of Organizations for Community Development, Inc. Both bodies are headed by Joseph L. James. A former realtor, James also sits on the boards of CHI and the South Dade Alliance for Neighborhood Development, a communitywide network that serves as the umbrella for the various neighborhood councils, clubs, and CDCs. James is director of public relations for the eleven-year-old Coalition of Ministers and Lay Persons, as well.
According to James, since its inception two years ago, the Goulds CDC has been working with other South Dade CDCs to fund construction of single-family homes and revitalize existing businesses. The group also has collaborated with developers who sought to build three federally subsidized apartment complexes, including the nearly completed Tacolcy project. Members of the Homeowners Association of Goulds have made it clear they will vigorously oppose the construction of any additional apartments, and James concedes that the three current projects will probably be the last, at least for the foreseeable future.
While they acknowledge that a relatively small cadre controls most of the money coming into Goulds, James and others say that's not such a bad thing: They have the planning and development expertise, the savvy required to negotiate with bureaucracies, all of which was crucial during the hurricane recovery period. Now that things have stabilized, James says, he intends to relinquish one of the directorships he holds.
In her role as secretary of the Goulds Coalition of Ministers and Lay Persons, Barbara Broussard is present at the coalition's September meeting, held in the Goulds Temple Church of God in Christ on 120th Avenue. Near the end of the meeting, Broussard arises and tells the 30 or so people who have assembled -- ministers, social-service workers, county bureaucrats, Metro-Dade police officers, and the principal of Pine Villa Elementary -- about her recent encounter with April. "As a minister, I don't know what else to do except get out there," Broussard asserts. "With all these program cuts, where are these people left? They're left at our doorstep, and as Pastor Coney knows, they're not going away."
Coney has come to the meeting, too, although a year earlier, he wouldn't have been welcome. Coalition officers were among the many social-service workers, bureaucrats, and law enforcement officials who attempted to persuade (and help) Coney to comply with the ordinances and statutes he'd been flouting. For a long time the pastor steadfastly rejected all offers while simultaneously complaining that no one was helping him and his flock. Lately, however, as Coney has made an effort to raise $18,000 to buy the land (he says he now has about $2000 in donations), and actually had plans drawn up and applied for permits to build a church, he and the coalition have reached a tentative rapprochement. Many of these men and women practically grew up with Coney, a sharecropper's son whose family moved to Goulds from Georgia in 1959 -- the same year Odell Johns and Lana Floyd arrived. Joseph James and Coney were in the same class at Pine Villa Elementary and Mays High.
A purple-shirted Coney rises from his wooden pew and gives a short, emotional sermon of sorts: "Our mission is on the street, and living there, people don't have anything. Once they get their check, they're in so much distress that it's gone. Their kids go to school and see other kids with their new clothes, their new shoes -- they don't want to go to school like that. We have a big problem here, a terribly big problem here. It hurts in our bones. But as you see in the newspaper, the county is wanting to close us down. I say, 'But where is unity? Where is help?' Now they got me [criminally] charged. We have two other homeless centers here [in Goulds], but there's more homeless. We need to start looking around and filling the need. I'm sorry if I violated the codes; I didn't know nothing else to do. Four of our people went back on the street last week. Now they're back on crack. Somebody's gotta pay for this. My hands are clean. Take it under consideration. Pray about it."
James asks Coney to give the closing prayer. "Let us all go back and work, Lord, to see that we develop this community as a power-packed community," the pastor concludes.
Back at Coney's Goulds Outreach Center, there's little sign of life under the blazing midday sun. Cars, pickups, a van, and two green Port-O-Lets are scattered about. Wires with a few generator-powered light bulbs are strung out to the tent, an office trailer, and a kitchen trailer. A pair of two-room trailers are in a state of half-vacancy: The couples who lived in them for more than a year have taken most of their belongings to temporary apartments in Naranja and will soon receive permanent low-income housing courtesy of a Homeless Trust-funded program. The two couples, stalwart members of Coney's church who are struggling to repair past lives of drug abuse, violence, and prostitution, continue to come back for church and weeknight Bible studies. Behind the trailers, grayish sheets hang on a wire between two trees. To the west and south stretch yellow fields and oases of deep green, wildly tangled tropical brush. Cotton-ball clouds gather high in the pale blue sky.
At eleven o'clock on a Saturday morning, Barbara Broussard is speaking in tongues in front of the South Dade Government Center on SW 211th Street in Cutler Ridge, just north of Goulds. She and about seven other members of her church and their children are holding hands in a circle and praying, as they have been doing every Saturday since June.
"Corruption will cease right now," Broussard proclaims.
"Cease now," some of the women answer. "Yeah," echoes a young man.
"Bring justice right now in the name of Jesus," Broussard continues. "We bind the stronghold of Satan. He ain't got no power." She stamps her foot and lifts her hands. "Holy Spirit, we thank you for leading us."
The circle weaves rhythmically. The participants are gathered on a stark paved surface at the northwest corner of the government center. Ropes flapping against a pair of metal flagpoles make a strangely sharp sound against the murmuring voices in the weekend stillness. Broussard says God told her to go to the government center to pray against corruption, and that she brings her congregation on Saturdays so they won't be arrested for disturbing the peace while everyone is working. They pray from eleven until noon. "I can't stop," she says, wiping her brow with a white handkerchief, "until He says stop."
"The Devil's gonna be mad with you," Broussard's prayer continues. "He's gonna try to make you go back." The people clap their hands. "I'm gonna pray a little bit harder," she says. "We pray our government will not do corrupt things. Remember: God put them up there, and He has the power to put 'em down."
Then, as the Israelite army did upon the orders of the Lord thousands of years ago outside the city of Jericho, the tiny congregation marches seven times around the building. Broussard holds a multicolored umbrella over her head as she walks. "We're marching up to Zion/The beautiful city of God," they sing. Down steps, through a courtyard, up more steps, holding on to red metal railings, clapping hands.
"We are soldiers in the army. We got to hold up the banner," Broussard chants. After each circuit, everyone stops to rest in the heavy heat. Finally Cleo Bethel, the congregation's associate pastor, offers a closing prayer.
As the amens fade, Broussard steps back and observes with satisfaction: "While you were praying, I saw the angels in the atmosphere. Blowing their horns for victory. Trumpets for the Lord's people.