Charity and Checkpoint

Will the mission's miseries tarnish the perception of Camillus House?

By 2001 the brothers had added four bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a family room to their modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom house at 680 NE 52nd St. They paid for part of the renovation with the $245,000 profit from the sale of the house they had occupied next door. (Charities Unlimited of Florida holds title to all the properties operated by Camillus. The brothers sit on Charities' board of directors.) When the project ran into some cost overruns, the brothers tapped Camillus House funds for the $195,000 needed to finish the renovation. That's $395,000 Camillus could have used to house a family of four for 131 years.

Ahr has since reached a deal with the order's brother superior general in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to have the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd reimburse Camillus the $195,000. The brothers will pay back the money once Camillus stops using the brothers' Morningside residence as collateral for the charity's line of credit, Ahr explains. Camillus plans to use instead its downtown Miami shelter as collateral. "We're just waiting for the bank to approve it," says Ahr.

An even better idea would be for the brothers sell the house once Camillus builds its new home. On September 13, Ahr and Dickinson announced an agreement with the University of Miami that will allow the charity to build its long-awaited facility.

Inside the Camillus House shelter, Miami's destitute find 
refuge from the streets
Jonathan Postal
Inside the Camillus House shelter, Miami's destitute find refuge from the streets
Inside the Camillus House shelter, Miami's destitute find 
refuge from the streets
Jonathan Postal
Inside the Camillus House shelter, Miami's destitute find refuge from the streets
Inside the Camillus House shelter, Miami's destitute find 
refuge from the streets
Jonathan Postal
Inside the Camillus House shelter, Miami's destitute find refuge from the streets

For the past 21 years, Miami's elected officials and real estate developers have groaned that the downtown Miami shelter has hindered redevelopment of the area owing to the concentration of homeless people. Today's unprecedented building boom has speculators salivating over the shelter's current location. Realtors in the downtown market say the Camillus property is worth several million dollars today. "We've had some inquiries," Sam Gil acknowledges. "Obviously any deal is contingent on us being able to move into our new building."

Nearly every time Camillus has identified a new location for the shelter, the Miami City Commission has squashed those plans because of opposition by homeowners who don't want homeless people roaming their neighborhoods. In 2002 the city commission killed a deal in which Miami's Community Redevelopment Agency would have bought the shelter and relocated it to a site in Overtown. Almost two years later, Miami commissioners torpedoed a proposal for Camillus to build its new facility on a five-acre lot the charity controls on NW Seventh Avenue between Eighteenth and Nineteenth streets, near the Civic Center medical complex.

Under the proposed deal, Camillus and the University of Miami would swap land near the Civic Center complex. Camillus would shift its project five blocks south to Fifteenth Street on a smaller parcel abutting I-95 currently owned by UM. The university would build a bioscience center on the land on NW Seventh Avenue that Camillus currently controls.

The construction of Camillus's new facility is expected to cost $30 million and will double the size of the shelter. The brothers' Morningside home has a market value of $600,000 — a nice chunk of change to help the fundraising effort. And the gesture would probably go a long way in restoring the public's faith in Camillus's mission.

However, David Lynch, the order's brother general in Toronto, says that is a highly unlikely scenario. "I wouldn't even think about it," Lynch says. "That would be taking a step backward."

Selling the Morningside property and moving in to the new center with the homeless would be wrong, Lynch argues. "Why should we take up space there when we already have a home?" he says, noting that all of the millions of dollars from the future sale of the downtown shelter land would help pay for the new site.

In the early Nineties, Lynch expounds, the Little Brothers hierarchy decided to move all the brothers to off-ministry sites. "I have an obligation to ensure the brothers are physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy," Lynch reasons. When the brothers lived at the shelter, Lynch remembers, they couldn't escape the daily grind of dealing with Miami's high-strung homeless population. "Now they have a healthy home environment to go to after a full day's work," he says.

Lynch, who visits Camillus three to four times a year, recalls the Miami shelter also needed more space for its assistance programs, so the decision was made to move the brothers into a house near Miami International Airport. "We couldn't hear ourselves think because of all the airplanes flying overhead," he describes. "It was also a very dangerous neighborhood."

In 1994 the brothers bought two houses in Morningside and moved uptown. Lynch says the brothers decided in 2001 that it made more sense to sell one house and expand their current residence on the corner of 52nd Street. "We eat, pray, and work together," Lynch says. "Two houses was not conducive to our way of life."

Lynch notes that religious orders like the Little Brothers face on a regular basis the question of whether their actions are just. "But sometimes I have to think with a business hat as well," he rationalizes. "I am responsible for the brothers' healthcare, education, physical well-being, and their retirement. Even the scriptures say a man is entitled to his keep."

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