Most human beings prefer to think of nature as a cyclical process, a perpetual revolution of destruction and renewal. In the face of forces so powerful, such thoughts can be comforting.
They can also be profoundly depressing.
As Dade County's citizenry frantically prepares for the possibility of a second hurricane in as many years, a significant segment of the population is still struggling out from under the wreckage of the first one. Ten months after Andrew, many of those who were displaced by the storm are still without permanent homes.
Perhaps the most ambitious effort to address the posthurricane homeless crisis was mounted this past spring on a scraggly lot in Naranja. The Life and Family Support Center, a South Dade tent city operated jointly by the Archdiocese of Miami and Metro-Dade County, opened in March with the potential to house more than 100 needy families made homeless by the storm.
The project, intended to run for six months and bankrolled by one million dollars in federal funds, represented an unprecedented union of nonprofit groups and Dade bureaucracy. The goal: to provide temporary housing and a vast range of social services, including posttraumatic and family counseling, health care, legal aid, job training and placement, tutoring, and day care. The reality: The Archdiocese's honeymoon with the county was tragically short-lived. Two months after the center went up, and after only 52 families had moved in, the tent city was suddenly shut down. Storm victims who had been promised a multifaceted support system found themselves cast away once again with a renewed sense of desperation.
Sucheila Singh's tale of dislocation is typical of the hundreds of South Dade residents whose post-Andrew lives followed the erratic trajectory of a fast-moving pinball well into 1993. Immediately after the storm, she remained in her three-bedroom rental apartment in Kendall, along with her six children, including a mentally retarded daughter, and her daughter-in-law. Although the storm had shattered windows and ripped off half the roof, Singh's landlord insisted she continue paying the full monthly rent of $665. Income came from Singh's eldest son's job as a courier and from a daughter who worked as an assistant manager at an Xtra supermarket. A 50-year-old widow and a native of India, Singh had quit her Publix deli job a year earlier because of worsening cataracts and painful arthritis in her feet.
In early December the Singhs' landlord moved them out of the apartment so he could begin renovations. The eldest son left to live with his wife; the rest of the family spent most of the month sleeping on the floor at friends' houses. Unwilling to impose any longer, Singh moved her family into a cheap hotel two days before Christmas. As the room rates drained her meager savings, she purchased a large, flimsy tent and several air mattresses and sheets and took the family to a campground in North Miami Beach, where they stayed for more than two months. "My friends who live around Kendall, they call me and tell me to come stay with them, but I can't do that with five kids," says Singh, a small woman with weary eyes and a kind smile. She punctuates her story with the laugh of someone who has seen the worst and has no other choice.
In February Singh heard about the Naranja tent city on a radio broadcast. Her family was among the first admitted. In the compound, which was positively regal compared to the North Miami Beach campground, she saw an opportunity. With both her grown daughters working, she could save money, find a public-housing apartment, and arrange for cataract surgery.
Almost immediately, the encampment received widespread international media coverage. Visiting dignitaries and politicians A Gov. Lawton Chiles, U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, and the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, among them, not to mention government representatives from Los Angeles and the Cayman Islands -- were a frequent sight. "The interest was generated because it was unique and it was working," says Margie Netter, a schoolteacher and former deputy director of the Miami Job Corps Center who was paid by the Archdiocese to work as the tent city's assistant site director.
And by most accounts, the project worked. Residents began to get jobs, to kick drug habits and deal with other personal problems, and to find permanent housing. "The only thing that everybody was interested in was getting their life together," says Margie Netter's husband Bruce, who lived with his wife in a trailer on the compound and served as site director. "They also wanted their friends to get their lives together." Despite its short life, the Netters contend, the tent city stands as a model for intense, interagency response to homeless populations, which could -- and should -- be duplicated anywhere it is needed.
But to project administrator Andy Menendez, Jr., the man responsible for the premature demise of the encampment, the community's early successes didn't amount to a whole lot next to one basic truth: canvas is flimsier than Sheetrock and cement. Menendez feared, too, that the several evacuations of the center made necessary by severe storm warnings had jeopardized the psychological well-being of its residents, and that disaster lurked in the clouds of the approaching hurricane season. "I think our intentions were honorable," offers Menendez, a former political lobbyist who now works as director of Dade's Office of Homeless Programs. "But these families are in crisis and getting them into a tent city just prolonged what happened to them from day one. I knew I had to do something to remedy that situation. I'm a committed individual and I'm committed to the safety of these people."
The tent city's closing came at a time when relations between the Archdiocese and Metro-Dade had soured over disagreements about how to run the project, and not surprisingly, Menendez's decision alarmed many people who were closely connected with the relief effort. Workers and residents insist that while the evacuations were indeed inconvenient and distressing, they weren't reason enough to close down the community. Menendez's rationale, his critics say, smacked of bureaucratic myopia; moreover, he made his drastic move without consulting Archdiocese representatives or key health-care and social workers who had been laboring at the center since it opened.
"The reality is that this was something that was working," says Bruce Netter ruefully. "We pissed that opportunity away. It was an absolute error on the part of anyone who had any impact on the decision to close it."
For a project conceived with expedience in mind, the Naranja tent city took a considerable time to come about. Although the first families would not move in until March, according to Peter Coats, hurricane relief coordinator for the Archdiocese's Catholic Community Services, the need for immediate housing had become obvious in the weeks after FEMA closed down its four massive Homestead tent cities in October. Since the hurricane, the Archdiocese had provided a range of relief services, including food and supplies distribution, financial assistance, and medical care. But workers saw the number of clients leap after FEMA's dismantling; hundreds of people sought out the five Archdiocesan missions scattered throughout South Dade, requesting camping equipment and financial aid. Moreover, says Coats, makeshift tent cities had begun to spring up everywhere. In November, with the hope of working out a temporary solution, he approached the county's Andy Menendez.
Menendez, who supported the idea of a new tent city, was able to locate federal funding specifically for poor Dade families who were left homeless by the hurricane. "I realized its potential," Menendez asserts. "I felt like the idea was good, in that it was the fastest type of project we could put together."
In order to secure the funds, the county first had to establish that there was truly a need. Multiagency teams, consisting of representatives from the Archdiocese, Metro-Dade, and the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) fanned out across the county, from Tamiami Airport south to Card Sound Road. Their census: 5000 homeless people (Peter Coats figures that was a minimum). Of that number researchers found 2000 agricultural migrant laborers, 2000 out-of-town construction workers, and 1000 Dade residents dislocated by the storm. Most of those residents were families. The federal government coughed up one million dollars -- enough, it was hoped, to maintain the tent city for six months -- to the state, which gave the money to Dade County to mete out.
The county would be responsible for overseeing the administration of the center and for providing immunity from insurance liability; the Archdiocese would help run the project day to day in accordance with a management agreement with Metro-Dade. The Archdiocese also donated the land A two vacant fields next to St. Ann's Mission on SW 264th Street and 138th Avenue A as well as the services of the Netters and one other employee who would work as director of social services. Dade County provided case workers, site managers, family relocation advisors, custodians, and a 24-hour police guard.
The team, with the help of dozens of volunteers, set up about 80 U.S. Army tents: room for 125 families, several washers and dryers, a mess hall, and a day care center. They rolled in a bank of showers and Portolets. Meals were catered. A FEMA-funded jitney service was available to take residents anywhere they needed to go in Dade. In addition, HRS, the University of Miami's School of Public Health and Medical School, the Dade County Public Schools, and several nonprofit agencies contributed services. These forces were supplemented by an endless stream of volunteers -- 1000 in all during the course of the tent city's existence -- including dozens of spring-breakers from Christian colleges around the U.S.
"It was intended as one of these hopefully beautiful marriages between the nonprofit sector and the public sector, where everybody brings the best of what they can do to the table," explains Peter Coats. "And everybody was at the table. It was extraordinary how many agencies wanted to become involved."
If Sucheila Singh and the other tent city residents checked one thing at the gate, it was privacy. The walls, after all, were canvas. But that very same intimacy quickly engendered a sense of community. "Everybody got very, very close," says Singh. "We were becoming like a big family."
With case workers assigned to every family, and with the immediate availability of health care and counseling, residents' lives were also professionally scrutinized. Several excerpts from a log book maintained by the site managers and social workers indicate the extraordinary micromanagement of activities:
* "3-10-93: Tenant notified me of baby having asthma attack in H-6. Responded along with Garrian and Metro Police. Baby had already settled down but had slight wheezing.... Advised mother, Anna Cade, that if any further problems arose tonight bring child straight to officers at gate. Otherwise keep baby warm and bring to HRS clinic in morning. Note: Baby was without shirt and pants running outside. This was observed by neighbors."
* "3-28-93: Matthews (E3) and Ackerman (F3) fighting again.... Jenneatte from social services told them don't go near each other, don't talk to each other, just stay away.... Dianne and Manny Alvarez are having a serious marital dispute!! She confided in me, and I told her to talk to her social worker or Beth and ask about marital counseling."
* "4-7-93: I spoke with Mrs. Matthews. Applauded her cleverness in using the restraining order as a motivational tool for her husband to go for help."
* "4-8-93: "Vivian (our housing coordinator) saw Mr. Ayala drinking out front in his car. He was quite drunk. Mrs. Ayala said she can't save money because he blows it all on drinking, etc., according to Vivian. I will follow up."
It was a population that needed such attention, explains Bruce Netter. A burly yet gentle-voiced man easily identifiable by his thick New York accent and long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Netter brought with him more experience in homeless advocacy than perhaps anyone else connected with the project. For years he served as assistant director of the Miami City Mission and helped run other homeless assistance programs in the county. He, along with his wife Margie, an ebullient woman with a disarmingly impish grin, formed the spiritual core of care and support for the families. "I saw in my eyes Bruce as Jesus Christ in tent city," says Sucheila Singh. "I'm not very religious but I saw in my eyes Bruce as the shepherd with the lost sheep."
The fact that the lives of residents were saturated with help eliminated the hassle of their having to fend for themselves in negotiating the rigorous mazes of bureaucracy. One piece in the mosaic of assistance, free on-site day care, provided immediate and welcome relief for parents whose struggle to regain a sense of normalcy was all the more difficult. "Before we set up the tent, mothers were fighting each other, there was a lot of tension," observes Adriana Vann, principal of the Vann Academy, a preschool contracted by HRS to provide day care to the tent city. "The same day we opened the day care, people came to us and said, 'What happened? Everything is so peaceful.'"
With no immediate worries about food, shelter, or care for their families, parents were free to pursue job leads, housing alternatives, and educational opportunities, and, in general, to sort out their lives. "I came into the tent city with a lot of stress," admits Tammy Lane, a 23-year-old mother of two who separated from her husband soon after Andrew. By her own admission, Lane took out her stress on her two children, until Bruce Netter finally called in an HRS Child Protective Services team to "get her attention," as he puts it. "At first I felt like I'd been betrayed, but after talking with him and getting help, I thanked him," Lane says.
She says she planned to take parenting classes and to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. She also formed her own housecleaning business, had business cards made, and began working. "My kids were beginning to settle down," she explains. "I was able to go through HRS to get help without the stress of having the girls right on top of me. I was able to get my mind off them."
After the hurricane, which destroyed their apartment, Maritza Ayala, her husband, and their five school-age children (one of whom is mentally retarded) lived at various times in their van and in homeless shelters. At the tent city, Ayala and her husband, a construction worker, were able to save money while she pursued a child-care certificate for future employment at a child-care facility.
Not that the tent city was by any means a paradise. "It changed a little for the worse as different people started to move in," Maritza Ayala recalls. As the population grew, so did incidences of drug use and spousal and child abuse. "But," Ayala hastens to add, "I think those people would've had problems wherever they lived." And despite very rare instances of drug use and petty theft, Metro police report that crime was virtually nonexistent.
"People really believed that something was going to take place because there were little bits of change happening around them," Bruce Netter says. "They started to become something that they hadn't been in months: optimistic."
But for all the hope that permeated the community of troubled homeless families, an equal amount of rancor intruded at the administrative level. For those who witnessed Andy Menendez standing inches from the face of Peter Coats and yelling at the mild-mannered Archdiocesan official, there may not have been another image that better captured the emotions of the conflict A or, for that matter, the legendary hotheadedness of Andy Menendez. "Andy kept getting in his face and yelling four-letter expletives," remembers Michael Lakowski, a site manager hired by the county for the project. "Andy's veins were popping out of his head. I thought he was going to haul off and hit Peter. And Peter was just standing there listening."
The occasion: an April 15 midnight evacuation to a community center in Goulds A the fourth such event in the tent city's short history A amid a severe-weather watch.
Coats refuses to say what was being discussed. "Sometimes passion rises in tense situations," he explains modestly. "Sometimes it's better to forgive and forget. At least, that's what I get paid to do here."
While Menendez is equally unspecific, he is considerably less diplomatic. "It was a discussion about philosophies and about when is an appropriate time to approach a county administrator," he says. "At 11:30 at night, when we are all rushing around evacuating, is not the time to pull me aside and start dealing with what I term a bunch of minutiae."
Witnesses say the conversation regarded a lease and a management consulting agreement the county and the Archdiocese had intended to sign. The county had failed to submit drafts of the agreements until the project was already months old, and the lack of a formal contract led to disputes, specifically about who was in charge.
On the whole, relations between the Archdiocese and Menendez had gradually worsened since the tent city's opening. In fact, several of his own temporary employees now say Menendez and his office became an obstacle to the operation. Among their complaints: that he was slow to order needed supplies and to reimburse out-of-pocket petty cash expenditures.
In addition, his critics are quick to cite Menendez's handling of the Williams family, whose situation A and its abrupt resolution A foreshadowed the closure of the project itself. Robert Williams suffered from terminal cancer, was under hospice care, and was hooked up to an oxygen machine. His wife Annette, who was pregnant, was a recovering substance abuser. One of the couple's three young children, a victim of sexual abuse, was undergoing counseling. "I had been working with ten different agencies to get them all kinds of help," recalls Garrian Hadley, a former physician's assistant who was hired by the county to work as assistant director of social services at the tent city. "They were doing fabulous. The different counselors who had been working on this family for the past year and a half said the family had never been doing as well as they were at tent city."
But on April 9, amid the third evacuation, Elizabeth Regalado, Dade's social services supervisor for the tent city, suddenly relocated the Williamses to a motel on a seedy stretch of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. (Last month Robert Williams died; the rest of the family has moved in with a relative in Florida City.) The action was taken without consulting the social services director, the site director, or representatives from HRS or Robert Williams's hospice. All were angered by the move.
It didn't help his relations with tent city workers that Menendez made only rare appearances at the encampment -- by his own admission, only about twice weekly until the final month. "All he did was sort of look down from the county building and watch us," says Michael Lakowski. "Andy and Liz [Regalado] were rarely ever there. The only time they showed up was when their management capabilities were questioned."
Adds Garrian Hadley: "All he wanted was the publicity. He'd only come around if he would get his name in the paper or if he was going to be on TV. He would make everybody tense and seemed to work against us. I don't feel he wanted it to work from the very beginning."
Several of Menendez's employees recall their boss's expletive-laced pep talks. "He always said, 'You got to know who you're loyal to. If you're loyal to them then you can leave right now,'" recalls one former county employee who asked to remain anonymous. "He would threaten your livelihood if you weren't loyal to him. He'd tell you to walk. He'd shout profanities at you and wouldn't apologize to you if he realized he was wrong. It was really incredible."
"Sometimes people are looking for a wishy-washy bureaucrat, and I'm not like that. My approach is a no-nonsense approach. With a problem as serious as the homeless, that is the only way to approach it."
Andy Menendez, Dade's 34-year-old director of homeless programs, is on a mission to wake up the county to the realities of its homeless crisis. If it means he has to yell in someone's face, he'll yell. If it means he has to forgo sleep, he'll stay awake. If it means he'll pull very unbureaucratic eighteen-hour days, he'll do that, too. And you can be sure he'll tell you all about it, even if you didn't ask. Menendez's passion for his cause is matched only by his hubris.
"I'm the type of person that if you give me lemons, I'll give you lemonade," he pronounces during a rare sedentary moment spent in his cubicle in the Metro-Dade Government Center. "I can tell you, I'm rolling up my sleeves and busting my butt day in and day out to take care of this problem. You tell me: Who is more committed to helping these homeless families in their totality? I don't let the bureaucracy, the hypocrisy, the bullshit get in the way of my mandate." The lean, balding Menendez concludes his statement with a deep, thoughtful slurp on a fruit smoothie.
When County Manager Joaquin Avi*o offered him the job a year ago, it wasn't exactly what Menendez considered a promotion. For five years he had been a lobbyist for the county in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., most recently holding the title of director of intergovernmental affairs. Before that he had served as director of community relations at the University of Miami. He had made his first inroads into politics in 1979 at the precocious age of 22, when he dared to challenge now-U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, now-County Commissioner James Burke, and ten other candidates for the state legislative seat of the late Gwen Cherry. Menendez was the only candidate largely backed by a fraternity. Meek, the victor, invited him to become her legislative aide.
Menendez brings all his lobbying skills to bear on his current $64,000-per-year post. Besides overseeing an office of fifteen case workers, much of the job involves trying to secure state and federal funding for homeless assistance programs. Menendez also designs programs and meets with neighborhood groups and committees more often than he'd care to count. "I think the job description that I originally discussed with the county manager and what I've molded this job into are a little bit different," he adds. "One of the things we never discussed is that I would be actually dealing with the homeless population and running programs like tent city. I'm doing it out of necessity. This is a job that can't be done from the 27th floor of the Metro-Dade Center. And we have to make the entire community realize that this a problem that all of us have to solve."
His effort has won the praise of his superiors, among them County Commissioner Alex Penelas. "I think he's phenomenal," proclaims Penelas, chairman of the commission's Homeless Task Force. "He's a very innovative administrator, he's very progressive in his thinking. He's not a standard put-'em-in-a-shelter, lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key type of thinker. And he's talented at bringing many people to the table." While the accolades are less forthcoming from homeless advocates around town, many of whom say Menendez is too divorced from street-level ministry, they commend him for his tireless effort.
Menendez insists that it's exactly this drive and enthusiasm that he brought to the tent city. After overcoming resistance to the project among county administrators, he insists, he was deeply committed to helping it succeed. "Of course I would've liked to have done something more different than a tent city, but we were left with no other choice. It was the fastest type of project we could put together. There were people in crisis out there."
In his opinion, the project was crippled by two major problems. One, he says, was the awkward relationship and growing contentiousness between the Archdiocese and Metro-Dade, which, he insists, was "related to the fact that the agencies had never worked together. There were some misunderstandings, a lack of agreement on how to do basic things, but for goodness sakes, this is the first time I'd ever worked with Peter Coats."
While the matter of the Williamses stands out in the minds of his critics, Menendez views it simply as an example of good case management. As he sees it, he and Liz Regalado handled the family sensitively, and he firmly disagrees that there was any need to contact anyone about the decision to move them. "What are the laws that say I have to do all this informing? When people tell me about some of the problems we had A for goodness sakes, none of this stuff is anything that is going to get me strapped in an electric chair in the State of Florida! I think it falls under minutiae, under pettiness, under bullshit. [My critics] all need to grow up, okay? They need to get a life!"
As for charges that he was harmfully detached from the day-to-day running of the encampment and from the spirit of the project, Menendez shoots back: "Nothing could be further from the truth. I was aware of every single thing on that site, whether or not I was there. My staff and people who I knew on site were keeping me abreast of what was going on."
Amid all the administrative hurly-burly, Menendez points out, he was trying to deal with the second major problem: the weather. The evacuations had crippled the morale of the residents, who were still coping with the psychological aftereffects of Hurricane Andrew. Because even he couldn't do anything about the wind and the rain, and because another storm season was approaching, he felt there was only one solution.
It wouldn't make him popular.
Bruce and Margie Netter learned about the decision five minutes before the television stations got the tip. Anita Bock, deputy district administrator of HRS, got word that same afternoon. Tent city residents plucked the news off the rumor grapevine, then heard the formal announcement later in the day. Tent city was closing prematurely. Andy Menendez's orders.
"When residents started complaining to me about the fact that they couldn't continue to deal with these evacuations, that's when I realized that they were absolutely right," explains Menendez, who made the announcement April 20, seven weeks into the short life of the tent city. "I think one more evacuation and these families would've gone berserk. I was going to end up in Chattahoochee State Hospital and so were they."
Menendez maintains that the tent city needed to evacuate five times; the site log book and several workers indicate there were four evacuations. Surprisingly, Menendez says his office doesn't have a record of the exact number of evacuations, nor does he care to look into the matter. "I really don't want to remember all of the times I'd get beeped and it'd be Kate Hale telling me bad weather was on the way and we'd have to evacuate," he snaps. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to go to sleep as I planned; I'd have to go to South Dade and deal with the whole evacuation scenario and some very unfriendly and upset families. In the morning we'd listen to more bitching, more complaining, more kids crying."
The announcement took nearly everyone by surprise: though Menendez claims he had been preparing the closure "behind the scenes" and had consulted with the county manager, members of his staff, state officials, and federal representatives, he chose not to confer with the Archdiocese, HRS, his temporary social workers, Adriana Vann or her day care staff, Dade County Schools, or tent city residents. (And despite Menendez's claims to the contrary, FEMA's principal liaison to the tent city, Robert Mu*oz, says his agency wasn't notified beforehand, either.) "He came in and called a meeting of the staff," Garrian Hadley recalls. "He already had the news channels on the phone before the meeting, so that by the time we were done, they were already there. None of the residents knew until the cameras were there. I think that's sad."
The effects of the evacuations are a matter of debate. No one disputes that they were unsettling and, for some residents still suffering from the memory of Andrew, traumatic. One HRS supervisor, who worked at two of the evacuation sites, observed children crying and vomiting. Day care workers say it took a day or two after each evacuation for the kids to calm down and readjust to the tent city environment.
But nearly everyone except Menendez says the evacuations were not reason enough to close down the project. "The first two times were hard because I guess we were still thinking of Andrew," says Maritza Ayala. "But the last two times we knew how to do it and what to take with us and how long it would be to resume our lives. My kids didn't like getting up in the middle of the night, but once they got to the place and got cookies and candy, sandwiches and milk, they would sit around and talk with their friends for hours."
"The more they'd evacuate, the less they'd rant," Michael Lakowski concurs. His opinion of Menendez's rationale: "We knew that was bullshit."
A renewed sense of fear and desperation overcame the encampment after Menendez's announcement. Within two days, nearly all the social workers temporarily hired by the county had been fired, their cases transferred to Menendez's permanent staff, which until then had had little contact with the families. Within the week, the county began to place families into trailer parks; as soon as a family was hustled out, workers folded the tent they'd inhabited as if no one had ever lived there. "People saw their community being destroyed and people were crying at night," remembers Bruce Netter. "It was nothing but tents, but it was theirs."
Confusion prevailed. "It was just like a time bomb," resident Nelson Brown recalls. "It was getting hotter and hotter. Tempers were flaring, people were getting into fights." Bogus rumors abounded: that Netter had embezzled money, that Netter was shooting cocaine, that the county had no liability insurance. Seventy new families who had been approved for admission were summarily turned away. A marriage and family therapist, a child psychologist, and a nurse midwife, all of whom were scheduled to begin regular programs at the encampment, were left hanging.
As the physical and social fabric came undone, the administrative structure also disintegrated. Menendez removed the walkie-talkies from the site, a move site managers say could have endangered residents' lives. Menendez, with the help of a county employee, broke into the locked office of Archdiocesan employee Beth von Werne, director of social services; he took all the case files and confidential records. Menendez says he needed the files for information that would expedite the moving of residents into FEMA trailers. He claims he had tried for hours to contact Von Werne, who was apparently off-site at the time. Regardless, he argues, the files were county property and he was their ultimate custodian.
"We realized there was going to be a change of balance and we weren't going to have the impact," says Margie Netter about the sense of doom that befell the tent city. "We started to feel less enthusiasm and more frustration, and that began to impact on the families."
"It was like a veil hanging over the place," Sucheila Singh recalls. "It was very, very difficult and sad to see what would happen."
Narrow asphalt roads with irrelevant names like Wagon Wheel, Candle Wick, and Quilting Bee crisscross the treeless Royal Colonial Mobile Home Estates, leading to Singh's newest temporary shelter, a simply furnished two-bedroom FEMA trailer at the back of the dreary lot. She and her family have their own shower now, and their roof doesn't leak. Still, Singh bemoans the loss of the tent city's incipient community. After a month here, she still doesn't know her next-door neighbors.
"I was trying to save a few cents with my daughter working and was looking forward to a HUD home, but not a trailer," she says. She had also planned to teach sewing classes to other mothers. "I had so much confidence. Then one day A boom! A I was in the washhouse and Andy Menendez came with a TV reporter and a TV camera and said, 'Mrs. Singh, I wanted you to know what is happening A we're closing tent city down A and I want you to say something for the camera.' I said, 'Oh, it's terrible! After so much time and effort and work and getting all these people together, I can't believe it's happening. It hasn't been completed and they're tearing it down!'"
Maritza Ayala, another trailer park transplant, feels much the same. "It left a lot of us out in the cold, because we were really expecting to get a lot more out of it than we did," says Ayala, who wasn't able to accomplish her goal of obtaining a child-care certificate. "They really painted us a pretty picture."
Along with several other residents who didn't qualify for FEMA trailers, Tammy Lane was relocated to the forlorn Clover Leaf Apartments on NW Second Avenue north of the Golden Glades Interchange. In moving to the other end of Dade, she has lost what few contacts she had made in her housecleaning business, and she hasn't been able to find suitable day care for her kids. With her days taken up by her children, she hasn't enrolled in parenting classes or sustance-abuse sessions as she had intended. "We thought we'd been deceived. I feel as if I was betrayed by the county. I could've continued what I was doing and made damn good money doing it. I would've had my life together if the county hadn't screwed things up." Late last month, under pressure from HRS and her estranged husband, Lane voluntarily gave up her children to her husband's care for a week.
Whatever concerns Andy Menendez may have had for the well-being of the tent city's children, the closure's timing A six weeks before the end of a traumatic school year A couldn't have been worse. Adriana Vann says her school still receives calls from tent city parents looking for day care. "I don't think Menendez stopped one moment to think about the children or the adults," Vann says. "For me, it's disgusting. When you have human beings involved in the middle, you have to be careful. I don't like the way he does business."
Menendez didn't arrange for follow-up programs by school tutors or HRS. Several residents in need of help have independently contacted Beth von Werne, who, after the tent city closed, returned to her job as director of relief operations at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Perrine. "They were telling me that I was the only family they had since the tent city had broken up," she says. "People were moving into FEMA trailers with nothing in their kitchens. They needed pots and pans and money for food." Many residents, Von Werne asserts, were unaware of relief sources that were available, such as the American Red Cross, which provides deposits for electrical hookups, and the Archdiocese, which provides deposits for telephone service. "Nobody from FEMA or the county had told them that there was a way to do these things."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Accusations of neglect infuriate Menendez, who says that he has invited various agencies to propose follow-up programs. "A lot of people talk a big game and a lot of people say they want to do big things," he protests. "It sounds compassionate, but where's the beef? I'm from Missouri: Show me! Tell me where the pot of money is and I will put the program together." (While the county hasn't completed its final accounting, Menendez's initial estimates for the two-month project put its cost at about $800,000.) Meanwhile, he claims, a team of six social workers under his command has maintained contact with residents who were relocated to South Dade addresses.
That comes as news to Sucheila Singh, who hasn't seen Menendez or anyone on his staff since shortly after he broke the bad news and asked her to comment for the cameras. "They haven't come by to ask me how I am. They don't have to continue giving us lunch and dinner, of course, but at least they can show up and say, 'Are you having any problems?' Or just, 'There's nothing we can do for you right now but we're trying.'
"I miss my neighbors and the staff at tent city," she continues. "Everyone had a shoulder to cry on. They understood our situation and they were always available. I was looking forward to staying the six months. I didn't want this at all. I feel like I'm lost way back here. It's like just after Andrew. It's like I'm lost again.