Welcome to the Cruel World

Welfare reform has dramatically changed public housing in Miami-Dade County. Personal responsibility is the new refrain, and zero tolerance is the law.

Marilyn Bell moves a white plastic chair, approved for outdoor use by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency,on to the small cement porch of her apartment and takes a seat. Light saturates the sand-colored buildings of Perrine Gardens on this late November afternoon, turning them an incandescent golden yellow. For Bell and the others who live in the 274-unit public-housing complex, this is freedom time.

The manager of Perrine Gardens, Ruthie Riley, has closed her office for the day and driven off. If Bell decides to drink a beer on her front porch, or fire up a barbecue grill, Riley isn't around to point out that these actions are against the housing agency's rules.

There is still an hour or so before night falls and the drug dealers take over the street. The tinny tinkling song of an ice cream truck provides background music. Children chase one another and tumble to the grass, wrestling over a toy.

From a side street arises a loud clatter. "Here comes one now," says Bell as a shopping cart rumbles past, pushed by one young boy while another balances on the metal braces connecting the front and rear wheels. The children keep some fifteen shopping carts, each stripped down to its frame, stashed around the complex. This is the time they bring them out, hooking the carts together to create a long snaking beast that Bell calls Perrine Gardens' version of Disney World. Her point is that the children can make magic from nothing.

Bell sips a beer and lets her eyes wander over this flattened landscape, this shaky bit of permanence in South Miami-Dade County. Looking at the scene from her porch, it can seem like things don't change much in Perrine Gardens. She's lived in the complex since 1989, watched her children grow up here, and her grandchildren now play outside in the late-afternoon sun.

But change does come, and it often blows into the lives of public-housing residents on an ill wind. Their hold on this borrowed patch of earth is tenuous. To survive they have learned to bend to it and go on as best they can. It's safer not to look up, not to expect too much, hope too much, or complain too much, unless it's to a neighbor. A preponderance of the evidence suggests nobody else is listening.

Any trauma can threaten to shake a family loose: a flood after a heavy rain, a disabling accident, a lost job, an arrest. Or a new government program that's supposed to make your life better.

When a new doctrine of personal responsibility swept through public housing in the mid-Nineties, many people not from places like Perrine Gardens applauded the end of a system they saw as fostering soul-numbing passivity. Welfare reform compelled poor families on government aid to take the first steps toward financial independence and self-sufficiency. Welfare-to-work whispered of economic independence, a future, and a way out of public housing.

Today welfare payments are temporary. Tenants must either work or volunteer, or be threatened with loss of benefits. Parents must answer for the actions of their children. Today an entire family can be evicted from public housing for three years if any member is caught selling or using drugs.

Personal responsibility doesn't end there. Life in public housing is subject to a host of rules intended to instill pride among residents, compelling them to invest more of themselves in their community. So if an ice cream wrapper blows into your yard at Perrine Gardens, you might wake up to a $15 littering fine. If your refrigerator leaks, it can cost several hundred dollars to acquire a new one. And if you don't pay up, the message you hear is blunt: Get out.

Bell was threatened with eviction after her son was arrested. One of her neighbors, Eliza Johnson, faced the same threat when she refused to pay for a refrigerator that had caught fire.

Of course if they had $15 to pay littering fines, or nearly $400 to buy new refrigerators, the residents of Perrine Gardens or Pine Islands probably wouldn't be in public housing to begin with. But the rules are different now. Reform was supposed to make it easier to work your way out of public housing. Now it's getting harder and harder not to be kicked out.

If complex manger Ruthie Riley hadn't already driven off for the day, she could look upon the scene from Bell's porch and spot numerous violations of Miami-Dade Housing Agency regulations. First of all children aren't supposed to be on the grass, let alone wrestling there. Even walking on the grass can result in a ten-dollar fine. Drinking alcohol outside your apartment also can endanger your tenancy. If Bell decides to grill her fish instead of fry it, she'll need a special permit from management before starting the barbecue. "This," Bell sighs, "is like a prison here."

Eviction is a powerful threat for people like Bell, who can't afford to rent an apartment in the private market. At age 43 she supports her three children on a $512 monthly Social Security disability check and a $159 food-stamp allotment. Since May of last year she has paid $58 per month in rent and receives a monthly $60 utility allowance at Perrine Gardens. Because of welfare reform, she no longer gets federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) for the care of her offspring. Nor has a job materialized that would make up the difference. Bell says she can't commit to steady work because of a back injury she suffered in a bus accident several years ago. But that is the least of her troubles. She undergoes counseling for depression. Her twenty-year-old son, Rollie, is in prison. Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Keyah, suffers from epilepsy, which anti-seizure medication has not been able to control. And just about every month the food and the money run out.

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