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Terminally Homeless

Do you want to go to a demolition party?" asked an enthusiastic Cathy Swanson earlier this summer. Swanson, development director for the City of Coral Gables, was referring to the city's bus terminal, slated for demolition to make way for Gables Grand Plaza, the Codina Group's planned $30 million high-rise development of rental apartments, business offices, and retail shops. The Metro-Dade Transit Agency had leased the terminal -- Dade's last remaining enclosed municipal bus depot -- since 1975, when Coral Gables quit running its own bus service. But last year the lease was not renewed, and now all that stands between Cathy Swanson and her wrecking-ball ball are a few formalities regarding permits, which Gables officials plan to take care of later this month.

It's a safe bet, however, that Swanson hasn't passed out party hats to Kenny, Lee Ann, Alfonso, Luis, Antonio, or any of the other destitute individuals who live in the three-story structure. Though the terminal, built 44 years ago at the intersection of Aragon Avenue and Salzedo Street, hasn't been used for transportation purposes for nearly a year, it hasn't been entirely abandoned: A small colony of men and women call it home.

Dressed in his customary long-sleeve white shirt and dirty beige pants, Kenny is listening to oldies on his Walkman. He's boiling potatoes, complaining in his Alabama drawl that there's no salt for the soup he's making. (Because many of the homeless people interviewed for this story wished to remain anonymous, no last names are used.) He made himself pancakes for breakfast this morning, Kenny says, going on to boast that he's mastered the tricky art of frying doughnuts. Asserting that he has survived 25 years on the street by "daydreaming," he stares into the tin can on his propane stove, fanning away the rising steam with a rolled-up newspaper. His fingernails are long and sharp and dirty, his gray hair greasy and uncombed. A smile spreads slowly across his face, revealing four yellow teeth.

The Veterans Administration has authorized Gables attorney Roy Brooks to divide Kenny's monthly $500 disability check into weekly payments, which he drops off at the Gables News Stand. Kenny blows a lot of his money on junk food and scratch-off lottery tickets at the newsstand on Alhambra Circle, which proprietor Hopkin Laman operated in the bus terminal until the city moved him out. Though Kenny has told Laman about how he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, Brooks says Kenny was discharged without ever going overseas.

Luis, a graduate of the University of Miami and a two-year resident of the terminal, is 33 years old. His daytime spot at the terminal is marked by a strip of cardboard containing all of his possessions (clothes and food, mostly, and three books -- two math texts and a philosophy tome). His head is cleanly shaven. Prior to his 1984 arrival in America, Luis spent three years in Cuban prisons for attempting to leave the island illegally. He says he suffered terrible beatings while imprisoned, and blames his current plight on his knowledge of a U.S. conspiracy to keep Castro in power. Though he sometimes visits the Coral Gables library to read newspapers and "learn about propaganda," he rarely ventures outdoors because the sun bothers his right eye, which never fully recovered from an operation. Every day he uses a sink in the terminal's still-functioning restroom to wash his underwear and his plaid shirt. Before drinking any of the water, however, he runs it through a Mr. Coffee filter. Today he's countering the breezeless heat of the terminal with a Bud tallboy. For selling his blood the previous week, he got twelve dollars and a big purple blotch on the inside of his forearm.

Lee Ann dresses from head to toe in paper bags. She spends most of her time pacing along a handicap-access ramp in the terminal, keeping watch over her belongings. People who know her say she has been living in the terminal for several years, that she never accepts money, and that she won't take food or clothing unless accompanied by a receipt. That way she can feel confident that whatever she is given will not be taken away. At the Publix on the other side of Miracle Mile, she trusts only three cashiers, one of whom is Cecilia Garcia. Owing to customers' complaints, Garcia says, Lee Ann is no longer allowed inside the supermarket. From the doorway she calls out to a trusted cashier, places an order, and inspects her purchases one at a time before paying. Her nails are so clean that they seem manicured. She doesn't like spicy food.

Alfonso, who has been living at the terminal since the city shut it down in October, believes he was jinxed two years ago by a woman, "beautiful but a demon," who cast an evil spell on him. Images of knives torment his nights. He dreams of someday getting married and going to a babalao, an Afro-Cuban ceremony, to cleanse his spirit. "I'm suffering morally, with no house, no woman. I'm bored," the 35-year-old laments. "I'd like to disappear from this area and leave behind the drunks. Even the pigeons leave here."

All Antonio wants is solitude. Short and chubby, with wavy black hair and glasses that are held together with Scotch tape, he lives in an efficiency but prefers to spend his days at the terminal since his wife left him four months ago. "I don't like a lot of people. I like to go where I'm alone," he says. He's unemployed now, though he used to work as a tailor at a shop on Miracle Mile. Before that, Antonio says, he fought 69 professional fights in Brooklyn, and also studied to be a priest. "I'm not afraid of anybody or anything," he asserts. "I'm only afraid of myself."

David has another place to stay, too, but he has spent a lot of time at the terminal during the past sixteen years. "It's an institution, man," he gloats. "Everybody here treats each other with respect. It's a nice place to hang out and relax. Nobody steals here. Nobody breaks into your car. Everybody's a brother."

Gesturing toward the scars on the concrete floor where city workers stripped out bus benches and a water fountain, David says, "What have they done with the benches? And who were they to take water away from human beings? It was good, cold water." (A Gables public works spokesman says the water fountain was removed because it had been vandalized and was leaking.)

The mere thought of homeless people in Coral Gables came as news to Cathy Swanson and her colleagues at city hall.

Commissioner Chip Withers said, "Honestly, truthfully, I didn't know."
Commissioner William Kerdyk humbly confided, "I didn't really know about that. Frankly, I've been [in office] a few months."

And Sandy Youkilis, an assistant city manager, conceded, "I haven't heard of the homeless in this office."

To his credit, Withers promptly sallied forth to see for himself. The issue of homelessness was touched upon at a subsequent commission meeting -- right before lunch and after five hours spent discussing commerce and beautification. After taking care to note that the city ponied up the princely sum of $20,000 to the Metro-Dade Homeless Trust back in 1993, commissioners promptly turned over the issue to the city manager's office.

None of which surprises Roxcy Bolton in the least. "It's supposed to be covered up; nobody's supposed to know about this," says the longtime civic activist and Gables resident. "We've never addressed the homeless in Coral Gables. It's a city without a heart.


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