By Michael E. Miller
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On a recent blistering, sticky afternoon, the corner of NW Seventh Street and First Avenue is teeming with vagabond men and women looking for a free meal or an empty cot inside the Camillus House shelter in downtown Miami. The sidewalk smells like a pungent cauldron of salt-crusted dry urine and untreated B.O. A group of haggard chaps lingers near the shelter's chainlink fence. A slender, goateed drifter wearing a black fanny pack, black shorts, a black T-shirt, and Carolina blue Air Jordan sandals ambles down the block with the aid of a wooden cane. He calls himself Rock Trailer because he doesn't want to divulge his true identity out of concern that shelter officials may not like what he has to say about Camillus House. Rock Trailer fears his comments to a reporter might add a few more days to his month-long banishment from the shelter for an infraction he doesn't want to elaborate on either.
Rock Trailer does reveal he has relied on the charity's assistance since 1988 rating the service at Camillus House a nine out of ten. "Some days are better than others," he says, the setting sun glimmering off his bifocal spectacles. "But they really help you if you want it. I've gotten treatments for medical problems, dental care, and eyeglasses. The food is pretty good too. Every day is a different menu."
Feeding people like Rock Trailer is only one of several humanitarian services Camillus House provides for the benefit of Miami's destitute. Through private donations and government grants averaging ten million dollars a year, the charity runs substance-abuse intervention programs and provides fully furnished apartments and free medical care to anybody on the streets. According to Camillus's most recent financial statement, Miami's premier nonprofit spent more than nine million dollars feeding, housing, and healing the downtrodden during fiscal year 2004. It provided 360,000 free meals and treated 5213 people, including 1237 children, at its free clinic.
The Toronto-based Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd opened Camillus House in 1960 to help Cuban exiles escaping Fidel Castro's revolution. Like most Roman Catholic religious orders, the brothers take vows of chastity and poverty. Over the past four-and-a-half decades, the brothers have turned Camillus House into a full-service homeless assistance center, including the free clinic housed in the charity's headquarters at 336 NW Fifth St. In addition to the downtown Miami shelter, Camillus operates twelve other homeless assistance satellites in Miami-Dade County.
Not all of Camillus's clients have nice things to say about their nonprofit benefactor, though. A tall, lean, ebony woman with an awkward gait strolls up to the entrance of the shelter's courtyard, where several dozen hobos are waiting to get a bed for the night. She is dressed in soiled black-and-white pants and a gray extra-large T-shirt that droops over her emaciated frame. Her fungus-fortified dreads protrude like tentacles from a colorful silk scarf tied around her forehead. She is Deborah Ford, a 49-year-old street hooker who asserts that Camillus shelter workers mistreat the people who come in for help.
Like a naughty child who didn't receive all the toys on her Christmas gift list, Ford complains Camillus staffers routinely curse at homeless people. Some staffers sink even lower, Ford accuses, by selling bus tokens that are supposed to be given away. "They cuss at us all day," Ford grumbles. "They tell us to sit the fuck down or get the fuck out. But if we cuss back, we're banned for 30 days can't take a shower, can't eat. Camillus has been shitting on the homeless for a long time."
Sam Gil, Camillus marketing director, emphatically refutes Ford's declarations. "No one is selling bus tokens," Gil explains. "But we don't just give tokens away to everyone. We try to verify if someone has a legitimate reason like an appointment we can't drive them to. We don't want to give clients a bus token so they can turn around and sell it for something else like a can of beer."
Gil says Camillus does not tolerate any profanity from its employees either. "As far as clients are concerned," Gil continues, "we've had instances with individuals getting abusive and violent. For issues of safety, we will remove those people from our facility."
Even so, Ford knows not everyone working for the charity has the best interests of the homeless at heart. That was certainly evident this past December when Camillus's former executive director Dale Simpson was arrested on state charges he defrauded the charity of more than $10,000 worth of building materials and used Camillus employees and clients to install brick pavers, build water-retention walls, remodel a kitchen, and assist with other projects on his properties in Miami and Stuart between January 1, 2002, and December 31, 2003. He was booked on two counts of tax fraud and one count of petty theft. This past July, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office amended its complaint dropping the petty theft charge and adding seven counts of sales tax evasion. In essence, Simpson is accused of exploiting a charity meant to help the poor and the homeless so he could save himself some money improving his homes. He faces up to 24 years in prison if convicted.