The Great Pretender

After years of making a living off rich people's money, Martin Siskind is now portraying himself as a savior to Miami's poor

Ziskind resigned in April after his pet project, a drug rehabilitation and prevention program, failed to materialize. Ziskind remains reluctant to explain the mismanagement of the agency in greater detail and considers the months he worked with Siskind a time he would rather forget. "I don't want any contact with him. Just talking about it is [a form of] contact," he says.

Despite the failed programs and an ongoing rotation of staff members, the Advocacy Foundation continues to operate. The nonprofit recently moved from its Eighteenth Street and NE Second Avenue location into a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the Fashion District; the building currently stores piles of used clothes, furniture, and boxes of shoes. A small office tucked in a corner is where an assistant works and will act as a computer training center, according to Siskind. He also plans to use the space as a thrift shop/art studio that would become the primary funder of the organization. Without additional public funds the revenue from the sales along with private donations and loans will keep the agency afloat, Siskind speculates.

Siskind sought to capitalize on Sam Mason's years of experience in community organizing -- but the two don't speak anymore
Steve Satterwhite
Siskind sought to capitalize on Sam Mason's years of experience in community organizing -- but the two don't speak anymore
The Victory on the Rock church feeds the homeless on Thursday nights with Siskind's help
Juan Carlos Rodriguez
The Victory on the Rock church feeds the homeless on Thursday nights with Siskind's help

In the meantime Siskind continues to try and make inroads with Miami's poor communities. This summer Siskind worked with leaders in public housing projects in Overtown and Liberty City in a drive to gather information about residents. Yvonne Green, director of the Overall Tenants Advisory Committee (OTAC), which represents the county's 45,000 public-housing tenants, helped Siskind devise a survey of all recipients of government assistance in Miami's public housing projects. The survey includes residents' names and social security numbers as well as a listing of all the services they receive.

"I'm not really sure what he's doing with it," says Barbara Pierre, president of the Liberty Square Residents Council, referring to the survey and the information in it. "I don't know everything he does."

Pierre keeps up a working association with Siskind. Among the plans Siskind had for the Liberty Square neighborhood was a bus service that would shuttle residents to the Advocacy Foundation's home further south. He also suggested a slew of children's programs at community centers like the ones he proposed at New Haven Gardens. Pierre and other community leaders are eager for the services, but no one has seen any of Siskind's promises become reality. "He's wild; he talks a lot," Pierre says. "But he's good."

Others remain skeptical.

Sam Mason, an activist in Miami's black communities for more than twenty years, squints and tilts back his head at the mention of Siskind's name. "Siskind is a rattlesnake," Mason declares matter-of-factly. "He's a con man from the old school." Mason sensed Siskind was a smooth talker when he met him this year. With a grandiosity few have matched, Siskind dropped influential names, bragged of deep pockets, and once again quoted liberally from his idol Clarence Darrow. Mason was invited to work with the Advocacy Foundation, but he remained dubious. "I could tell he was reaching out for me, because a lot of people told him I'd make a good recommendation," Mason remembers. "I had a feeling. I could see he's talking a great deal, but he's not showing me anything."

Mason accompanied Siskind to a Miami-Dade Housing Agency meeting to lobby for HUD funds this past July. Siskind blustered on about connections with federal and county judges, as well as state legislators, says Mason. He told Mason he was expecting tens of thousands of dollars for a substance abuse program. After a couple of hours, the MDHA board approved a grant to the Advocacy Foundation. Siskind walked away with little more than $5000.

The meeting showed Mason that despite his talk, Siskind's words were hollow. "I said to him: “This is bullshit,'" Mason recalls. "“All the people you're supposed to know, and you don't know what kind of funding you're going to get?' He just wanted to grandstand. When we got outside the meeting, I asked him: “How could you let them play with you like that?' He don't call me anymore."

Siskind's reputation stretches beyond community leaders. He is well-known on the streets of Miami's inner city. Many of the homeless people who have met him respond like Bowden, a homeless man living in an alley off Third Avenue and NW Ninth Street. "Martin Siskind? Oh, you mean the lawyer." Siskind cruises poor neighborhoods looking for people who have been evicted from apartments and are living on the streets.

One such person is Ernest King, a street painter whose father, Rabbi Clennon King, owned an apartment building on NW Eighth Street and Third Avenue. (Clennon King was one of Overtown's most famous residents, a political activist who made national headlines several times during his life. In the Fifties he was the first black man to apply at the University of Mississippi, after which he was said to have been ordered into a mental institution and then kicked out of the state. Before the 1976 presidential election he attracted attention again when he tried to desegregate Jimmy Carter's church in Plains, Georgia.) The rabbi died in 1999, leaving the property in the name of his nondenominational church, the Church of Divine Mission. Siskind met Ernest King after King had been kicked out of his father's apartment building and was living in the alley next to it. Siskind threatened to sue the church and its board of directors on King's behalf if they did not let him back into the apartments. The board, led by Sister Antoinette Keaton, a tenant of the apartments, relented.

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