Bring Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Homeless

This past July, during a special Miami City Commission meeting to consider construction of Dade County's largest homeless shelter, city leaders heard dozens of variations on one theme: Miami -- specifically the northeastern Overtown and Edgewater neighborhoods -- is host to a disproportionate share of homeless facilities in the county. During an emotional four-hour conclave at the James L. Knight Center, attended by close to 1000 people, opponents of the proposed shelter wondered angrily why other municipalities couldn't share the burden of caring for Dade's 6000 to 10,000 homeless.

But commissioners approved the shelter. The "enough already" arguments of neighborhood residents echoed weakly against spirited endorsements made by many of South Florida's most prominent business, civic, and religious leaders. Several of those proponents also hold positions with the nonprofit corporation founded by former Knight-Ridder Chairman Alvah Chapman, the Community Partnership for Homeless, that will build and operate the new facility. And it's no mere shelter: The two-million-dollar, 350-bed "Homeless Assistance Center" represents Dade's most ambitious and visible effort to get homeless people off the streets.

It also represents serious problems for another organization dedicated to helping the homeless. For the past three years the Miami Coalition for the Homeless has been planning a project that would operate at the now-vacant U.S. Naval Reserve Training Center in Coconut Grove, on 3.27 acres of some of the most valuable real estate in the city. Ironically, the same arguments Overtown and Edgewater residents employed unsuccessfully in July now are being used to block the much smaller proposed homeless facility at the Naval Reserve center.

"The City of Miami has been impacted like no one else with [homeless] facilities," asserts City Manager Cesar Odio. "The commission bit the bullet and accepted this huge center in downtown Miami, but you cannot expect we're going to keep accepting more centers in the heart of Coconut Grove."

On August 4, Odio unexpectedly denied approval of a certification required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of an application for a two-million-dollar grant submitted by the Miami Coalition. The funds would be used to get the Coconut Grove project up and running; a missing certification almost surely would mean denial of the application. Odio's refusal to sign what the coalition considered a routine piece of paper came as a shock, just hours before the application deadline. But it was less surprising in the context of years of fierce opposition to the proposed facility, which would house about 50 homeless single-parent families on a prime parcel of land along Tigertail Avenue.

"It's completely a political thing," says coalition Executive Director Donna MacDonald. "But we'll never give up on the project. If we can't get the HUD money, I think we'd work with a [community development corporation] to put together funding. We can start small and go from there. I feel like telling Cesar Odio if they block the money for us to build something decent, we'll just put up a bunch of tents and trailers there."

Under federal law, surplus government properties must be offered first to groups serving the homeless, and the U.S. Navy awarded the property to the coalition in October 1991. Nearby residents, developers, and the city commission have tried everything since then to take it away: land swaps, a million-dollar buyout, and finally a lawsuit against the federal government, which was dismissed in 1992. In recent months, opposition has held steady, and the coalition hopes to allay fears and educate neighbors about the project, which will accept only homeless people without drug or mental problems, and who are enrolled in education or job training programs.

In another irony, the coalition applied to HUD for the same grant two years ago and Odio did sign the certification then. Today he says he doesn't remember signing, but if he did, it was a mistake. (The application was turned down because the organization was facing a lawsuit and the navy hadn't completed demolition and removal of underground fuel tanks. Currently the coalition is days or weeks away from signing a dollar-per-year lease with the navy, according to Daniel Blando, Jr., director of administration for the coalition.)

Odio is recalcitrant because the coalition has not presented enough evidence of neighborhood support. Letters of recommendation from the Dade County Public Schools, Dade County Community Action Agency, Camillus Health Concern, and other organizations aren't the kind of evidence he needs. "When letters [of support] come from Joe Doe one block away," Odio says, "I'll be glad to review them." Those letters probably will not be forthcoming. "The public consensus was [the project] would be totally inappropriate in an affluent area," says Coconut Grove real estate broker Judith Wibel. "Better to sell the land to developers and give the money to the homeless."

But homeless advocates insist the certification in question doesn't require public support. The certification affirms that a prospective project complies with the City of Miami's Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy, or CHAS, a planning document HUD requires before it will channel federal housing dollars into a community. The CHAS sets out specific goals and priorities the city intends to follow in addressing its housing problems. "The community-support concept is not supposed to be a part of the CHAS," says Laurel Weir, policy analyst for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "The original concept was to ensure projects weren't all located in one particular site. It was meant not to block services to homeless people or low-income people but rather to ensure they got services and weren't ghettoized."

The City of Miami's CHAS, which runs more than 200 pages, adopts the same goals relating to homelessness as the year-old Dade County comprehensive homeless plan. Among those goals, as stated in Miami's CHAS, is the construction over the next three years of at least 750 new "transitional housing" beds, precisely what the Coconut Grove facility expects to provide. The new homeless assistance center will offer 350 emergency beds, not transitional housing.

Coalition staffers say they are discussing the possibility of suing the city for not complying with its CHAS. But officials at the HUD regional headquarters in Jacksonville, the office that oversees Miami, stress that the agency's policy is to leave decisions involving the CHAS to local officials and to encourage the local resolution of disputes. However, HUD has on occasion intervened in other cities where it determined local governments improperly wrote or applied their CHAS. "Because this issue has been raised, our Community Planning and Development [Division] staff is going to look into this issue and is going to be asking questions," says James Walker, a HUD spokesman in Jacksonville. "We're going to see if any processes can be waived or looked into at a higher level. This group [the coalition] can submit its case and write to us, but as of now the city manager has local authority and autonomy."

If the coalition can solve its CHAS problem, it will face another step in the bureaucratic process later this month: zoning hearings, a popular tool to thwart unwanted construction. Again there will be disputes over authority and jurisdiction. Because the coalition will be leasing the Naval Reserve center from the navy, the organization claims the property is exempt from most local zoning laws, although not from building-code standards. Whatever the outcome, both sides claim several legal options and both are bolstered by powerful allies: Supporting the coalition is the U.S. Navy and possibly HUD; the city counts on the energy and influence of some of its most influential citizens. And both vow never to give up. Says Mayor Steve Clark, who refuses any further comment about the Coconut Grove project or the city's homeless policies: "We've done our share.


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