The Salvation Army building just north of Homestead still sports a "For Sale" sign, but the place is as good as sold. The warehouse, which served as the nerve center for crews rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Andrew, is shut down. The 26 pastel-painted cabins, which only months ago provided a temporary home for volunteers, are quiet. The Daily Bread Food Bank and Jewish Family Services of Greater Miami, which rented office space from the Salvation Army, are preparing to move on.
"The Salvation Army's departure is a real loss for the community," laments Debbie Curtin, who directed the county's South Dade relief efforts until last January, when she was named director of Team Metro, a network of minigovernment offices throughout Dade. "There are still very serious needs in South Dade, folks that are still not back in their homes. And if they are back in their homes, they're still struggling to make ends meet."
"Any building assistance makes the clients' life better sooner," adds Bill Laughlin, who oversees support services for the Interfaith Coalition for the Andrew Recovery Effort, a group formed immediately after the hurricane to help pool building supplies and to coordinate volunteers. "My fear is that we will never get to the end of the list of names, because there are only three to four groups left rebuilding."
Of the estimated 107,000 South Dade homes damaged by Andrew, about 1000 are still in need of repairs that range from plumbing to re-roofing or more, according to a report prepared by Project TeamWork, one of the remaining volunteer rebuilding groups.
During its three-year tour of duty in South Dade, the Salvation Army spent more than $14 million. Working with myriad church groups and other disaster-relief organizations, the charity helped repair nearly 2000 homes, according to Capt. Steve Hedgren, director of the Salvation Army in Dade. Back on September 29, in fact, staffers celebrated their home-repair accomplishments with a party at the South Dade headquarters, an event that marked the official end to the Salvation Army's post-Andrew rebuilding efforts.
Hedgren glows with pride when talking about his group's achievements since the hurricane, but his tone becomes sober when he speaks of the move, which will leave the Salvation Army with no outpost south of Sunset Drive.
"We were extremely optimistic in September," says Hedgren. "One of the themes of the celebration was that we were finishing up one phase of our program and starting another. But we can't do it. We can't afford to keep the doors open -- South Dade is just draining us."
Before August 24, 1992, the Salvation Army's only South Dade presence was a thrift store just north of Homestead. After Hurricane Andrew forced tens of thousands from their homes, though, the group was by far the most visible and active of the dozens of organizations that arrived with aid. Its circus-size tent, emblazoned with a giant red cross, was packed from pole to pole with food, water, and other supplies. Volunteers manned griddles nearly 24 hours a day, and trailers became makeshift chapels for the soul as residents attempted to make sense of their losses.
As the area crawled slowly from disaster relief to rebuilding, church relief teams, the American Red Cross, and state and federal agencies downsized. But the Salvation Army stayed, as it had for three years after Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina in 1989. Fresh from that experience -- the charity's first attempt at long-term rebuilding -- Maj. James Worthy flew into Homestead to coordinate the influx of tons of supplies spilling in from across the U.S.
Amid applause and camera flashes, the new headquarters for the Salvation Army's Disaster Services program was christened in November 1993 by its benefactor, billionaire Ross Perot. Perot's highly publicized million-dollar donation, which followed a walking tour of South Dade, was used to buy six acres at 28945 S. Dixie Hwy., including a 35,000-square-foot shopping center that would be used as an office building and warehouse.
The hope was to build a shelter eventually, moving South Dade's homeless into the cabins that had been built for volunteers. Like four other Salvation Army centers throughout Dade, the site would also provide clothing, food, and other essentials to the poor. In time a chapel was to be added.
"One of the things that a homeless shelter would have provided was a source of revenue," Hedgren elaborates. "It would have allowed us to apply for funds from the Community Partnership for the Homeless. That money would have helped pay for staff and caseworkers to work there full-time."
But the shelter plan met with a wave of protests from area residents who felt the location was unsuitable.
"A number of options that had been open to the Salvation Army were not acceptable to the people of South Dade," explains Eliza Perry, a Homestead councilwoman who serves on the Salvation Army's South Dade advisory board. "It's clearly the commercial corridor. Why would we want to have something there that would not lend itself to economic viability of the main artery through Homestead? The Army never had a grasp of that."
When the property went up for sale this past fall, no one bit at the $995,000 asking price (in May the site had been appraised at $1.5 million by Spaulding Associates Inc., a local realtor). The two most promising bids came from a group of local investors and from Farm Share, a nonprofit that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to the poor.
By pooling a state grant, a loan, and proceeds from fundraisers, Farm Share pieced together an offer of $650,000, intending to use the facility as a storage-and-distribution site and to rent office space to nonprofits. The volunteer village would also remain open.
But the local investment group bid more. Hedgren accepted their $800,000 offer and whisked a copy of the contract to the Salvation Army's southern territory headquarters in Atlanta.
He would have preferred to sell the property to a nonprofit like Farm Share, says Hedgren; that way the Salvation Army could have rented office space at a reduced rate, scaled back operations, and trimmed its South Dade budget from $504,000 to $210,000 annually.
That money had to come from donations, not the sale of property. The Salvation Army routes all proceeds from property sales into a capital-needs account (for expansion or construction) or an endowment fund (to cover operating costs for the organization as a whole). But in December, when the charity sent mailers asking South Dade residents to donate money for new programs in the area, the effort netted less than $1000.
"That was extremely disappointing, especially after all the work we did in the community," Hedgren says. "But we have to deal with the economics of the times. We can't identify nearly enough money to maintain an office down there."
Some say that in branching out into long-term rebuilding, the Salvation Army overextended itself. Particularly telling was the physical collapse of Maj. James Worthy, who suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1993. (When Worthy was subsequently transferred to Nashville, management of the program shifted back to the Dade headquarters in Miami.)
"Relief is not the Salvation Army's primary mission. Their primary mission has to do with alcohol and drug rehab, feeding the hungry, and providing shelter for the homeless," says Fred Behnken, who was hired away from another relief organization and served as interim chief in Homestead throughout 1994. "I think a lot of people saw the tremendous job the organization had done and they became enamored with the Salvation Army: 'Wouldn't it be great for them to stay!' If the Salvation Army hadn't purchased this building, if they had set up trailers instead, it would have been so much easier to pull out. Trailers aren't permanent. But once you move into a building, people think permanent. Buildings and property have a tendency of changing people's perspectives."
Hedgren says the Salvation Army never intended to perpetuate the repair aspect of the program. "We're not in the rebuilding business," he stresses. "We knew it would end once we had spent all the money."
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Patricia Robbins, Farm Share's executive director, isn't satisfied with that budget-conscious rationale. "One of their lobbyists gave me one of their brochures. What's funny is that it says in big letters, 'We're here to stay,'" she recounts with a sarcastic chortle. "If they sell the property, that money will go into their capital trust fund for operating the Salvation Army nationwide. South Dade residents won't see a penny of it."
Fred Behnken, too, expresses reservations about the intent of Perot's donation. "I saw it as being meant for Homestead, for South Dade," he says. "You spend it, create the program, and when you're done, you sell the property and figure out how to reinvest it in the Homestead area."
Noting that the Salvation Army flooded South Dade with $14 million worth of relief, Hedgren counters: "Ross Perot gave money to the Salvation Army to assist in an emergency relief operation that was only going to last temporarily. He never intended for us to maintain a long-term presence in Homestead. Basically Mr. Perot's donation was: Do whatever you can as quickly as you can."
Says Trudy Renna, a spokeswoman at the Dallas-based Perot Foundation, which distributes Ross Perot's charitable contributions: "It's the foundation's policy not to discuss any of our activities with the media.