The last burnt-orange light of day dissipates over the dusty buildings as I drive along North Miami Avenue looking for prostitutes. Really, just one in particular.
This takes place during the fevered buildup to the holidays and I'm thinking it's an appropriate way to mark the season.
I'm not alone. Along for the ride is Heather Klinker, 47, and this is a reunion of sorts. Five years ago she founded a nonprofit organization called Grubstake Resources for Recovery with the aim of helping women get off the street. A month after she opened I shadowed Klinker, a swaggering cowboy of a woman, as she did outreach one night and approached a willowy blonde under a Biscayne Boulevard streetlamp.
"Hey," Klinker said to the startled blonde and her tweaked-out friend in the skintight rubber dress that night in November 1999. "Can I talk to you for a minute? Don't worry, I'm not a cop." The two allowed Klinker to approach. They listened as she told them about her thrift shop, Good & Funky, where they could get secondhand clothes and furniture for free, and Klinker offered help getting the women into rehab programs. She left her business card with them and sauntered off.
The next afternoon the blonde, who called herself Krissy, stopped by Good & Funky, which at the time was located on NE Second Avenue at 35th Street. Klinker showed Krissy around the shop, then suited her up in jeans and a fuzzy sweater and gave her some books to take along on the trip through rehab. Before she got into Klinker's car, Krissy made one last, feeble-voiced request: "Do you think you could call my dad for me?"
I've seen a few things in this city, but it was stirring to witness this girl make the journey from her flophouse motel, thick in the middle of a heroin-jones day, to ask for help. To know that Klinker set up shop for just this moment seemed miraculous. It still does.
But this is Miami, not Disney. Five long years later Klinker and I park in front of a petri dish masquerading as a hotel to see Krissy. She never made it through rehab and was back on the streets. We knock on the door of her room and it opens a crack. She still has blond hair, and she's still friendly, but the lines around her mouth are etched deeper and the scabs on her arms are probably needle marks. "Oh hi, I remember you," she says chirpily. "I can't talk right now. I have a guest."
The odd thing is, five years ago I would have bet good money that Krissy could have stayed off junk longer than Klinker could have kept her do-good venture afloat. I've come to visit Klinker again precisely because I'd been so wrong in a city that is otherwise so predictable. "Five years ago we really targeted street women," explains Klinker, who has personally driven hundreds of Krissys to rehab. Many of them did make it. "That has bloomed into helping poor women in general. The last census told us that something like 60 percent of all single mothers in Miami are living in poverty. We just try and help poor women get the basic necessities in their homes to make sure their children can live with them."
When she started out, Klinker had no experience, training, or funding (other than her personal savings) to attempt a project like this. Without any background, I wondered how long a person could wade among the fallen and stay upright herself. But Klinker was tougher than I thought, and it turns out she knows something about being knocked down, which has helped her keep the long view.
She's from the Rocky Mountains, near Boulder, Colorado, and grew up bucking broncs and skiing. She was good at the latter and taught for a time in Switzerland and New Zealand. This led to a job in sales and marketing for ski resorts, then hotels, which eventually landed her in Key West. As you can imagine, every day was an excuse to party. She ended up a mean alcoholic, craving booze so badly she'd wake up in the middle of the night to drink. In 1998 she made it through her own rehab program at South Miami Hospital. While driving to her support group she'd pass the junkie whores of Biscayne Boulevard and think: "There but for the grace of God go I."
So in October 1999 Klinker established Grubstake Resources for Recovery in a storefront just a block off Biscayne. As part of that effort she opened the Good & Funky thrift store, which required her to quit a $50,000 job and plunk down much of her savings. She filed grant proposals with different governmental agencies and philanthropic organizations, then daydreamed about getting enough money to pay herself a small salary.
But the grants never came, and that made Klinker ornery. She quit writing the proposals altogether and concentrated on raising money herself through donations and the proceeds from Good & Funky. In 2000, the first full year of operation, she operated on a $15,000 budget. As word got out, the donations grew dollar by dollar: 2001's budget inched up to $22,000; 2002's grew to $24,000; in 2003 she jumped to $42,000, half of which came from sales at Good & Funky. She's still a volunteer, living off a couple of real-estate deals she's done on the side. The donations are all small. One woman in a retirement home has sent a ten-dollar check every month without fail for the past two years.
Meanwhile Klinker has moved her operation to a roomy, two-story warehouse space at 2401 N. Miami Ave., the clothing store upstairs, furniture downstairs, and an adjacent yard where she provides free Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless.
Klinker has wired her organization into the system. Women from the nearby Village Addiction Treatment Programs make monthly visits to pick up clothes and books. Many of them are struggling to regain custody of their children and must make sure they have everything necessary to raise a child. Other women fulfill community-service sentences by volunteering at the Grubstake compound.
Addicts, mothers who lost their kids because of their own negligence, are often victims of their own making. Klinker didn't pick a warm and fuzzy constituency, which no doubt makes her struggle all the more difficult. But these are people "who have no voice," as she puts it, and that is exactly what motivated her to drop everything midlife -- to make herself useful to them. She's not religious, she doesn't preach, she doesn't even judge. She just makes herself available to help.
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Here we are at the dawn of a new year, with the old one ending rather gloomily regarding the public trust: Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele charged with taking bribes and rigging contracts on work meant to improve some of the city's poorest neighborhoods; the head of the county's premier homeless service agency, Camillus House, arrested for stealing donations; the Public Health Trust mired in accounting scandals involving public funds meant to pay for poor people's health care. Outrage inevitably morphs into cynicism.
But Klinker points out that while the people in charge may be villains, it doesn't mean the people are. "Are you kidding? Miami is great. I couldn't have lasted this long without community support," she says. "It's not me. You need people willing to support us, who think this is important, for this place to survive."
To make tax-deductible contributions of money, goods, or time, contact Grubstake Resources for Recovery, 2401 N. Miami Ave., Miami, FL 33137; 305-573-2976, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.