They Came, They Helped, They're Outta Here

The Salvation Army spent millions in South Dade after Andrew, but residents wouldn't pony up for them to stay

The Salvation Army building just north of Homestead still sports a "For Sale" sign, but the place is as good as sold. The warehouse, which served as the nerve center for crews rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Andrew, is shut down. The 26 pastel-painted cabins, which only months ago provided a temporary home for volunteers, are quiet. The Daily Bread Food Bank and Jewish Family Services of Greater Miami, which rented office space from the Salvation Army, are preparing to move on.

"The Salvation Army's departure is a real loss for the community," laments Debbie Curtin, who directed the county's South Dade relief efforts until last January, when she was named director of Team Metro, a network of minigovernment offices throughout Dade. "There are still very serious needs in South Dade, folks that are still not back in their homes. And if they are back in their homes, they're still struggling to make ends meet."

"Any building assistance makes the clients' life better sooner," adds Bill Laughlin, who oversees support services for the Interfaith Coalition for the Andrew Recovery Effort, a group formed immediately after the hurricane to help pool building supplies and to coordinate volunteers. "My fear is that we will never get to the end of the list of names, because there are only three to four groups left rebuilding."

Of the estimated 107,000 South Dade homes damaged by Andrew, about 1000 are still in need of repairs that range from plumbing to re-roofing or more, according to a report prepared by Project TeamWork, one of the remaining volunteer rebuilding groups.

During its three-year tour of duty in South Dade, the Salvation Army spent more than $14 million. Working with myriad church groups and other disaster-relief organizations, the charity helped repair nearly 2000 homes, according to Capt. Steve Hedgren, director of the Salvation Army in Dade. Back on September 29, in fact, staffers celebrated their home-repair accomplishments with a party at the South Dade headquarters, an event that marked the official end to the Salvation Army's post-Andrew rebuilding efforts.

Hedgren glows with pride when talking about his group's achievements since the hurricane, but his tone becomes sober when he speaks of the move, which will leave the Salvation Army with no outpost south of Sunset Drive.

"We were extremely optimistic in September," says Hedgren. "One of the themes of the celebration was that we were finishing up one phase of our program and starting another. But we can't do it. We can't afford to keep the doors open -- South Dade is just draining us."

Before August 24, 1992, the Salvation Army's only South Dade presence was a thrift store just north of Homestead. After Hurricane Andrew forced tens of thousands from their homes, though, the group was by far the most visible and active of the dozens of organizations that arrived with aid. Its circus-size tent, emblazoned with a giant red cross, was packed from pole to pole with food, water, and other supplies. Volunteers manned griddles nearly 24 hours a day, and trailers became makeshift chapels for the soul as residents attempted to make sense of their losses.

As the area crawled slowly from disaster relief to rebuilding, church relief teams, the American Red Cross, and state and federal agencies downsized. But the Salvation Army stayed, as it had for three years after Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina in 1989. Fresh from that experience -- the charity's first attempt at long-term rebuilding -- Maj. James Worthy flew into Homestead to coordinate the influx of tons of supplies spilling in from across the U.S.

Amid applause and camera flashes, the new headquarters for the Salvation Army's Disaster Services program was christened in November 1993 by its benefactor, billionaire Ross Perot. Perot's highly publicized million-dollar donation, which followed a walking tour of South Dade, was used to buy six acres at 28945 S. Dixie Hwy., including a 35,000-square-foot shopping center that would be used as an office building and warehouse.

The hope was to build a shelter eventually, moving South Dade's homeless into the cabins that had been built for volunteers. Like four other Salvation Army centers throughout Dade, the site would also provide clothing, food, and other essentials to the poor. In time a chapel was to be added.

"One of the things that a homeless shelter would have provided was a source of revenue," Hedgren elaborates. "It would have allowed us to apply for funds from the Community Partnership for the Homeless. That money would have helped pay for staff and caseworkers to work there full-time."

But the shelter plan met with a wave of protests from area residents who felt the location was unsuitable.

"A number of options that had been open to the Salvation Army were not acceptable to the people of South Dade," explains Eliza Perry, a Homestead councilwoman who serves on the Salvation Army's South Dade advisory board. "It's clearly the commercial corridor. Why would we want to have something there that would not lend itself to economic viability of the main artery through Homestead? The Army never had a grasp of that."

When the property went up for sale this past fall, no one bit at the $995,000 asking price (in May the site had been appraised at $1.5 million by Spaulding Associates Inc., a local realtor). The two most promising bids came from a group of local investors and from Farm Share, a nonprofit that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to the poor.

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