Don't Give Him That Old-time Religion

Franklin Jacobs's Southern-accented voice grows pained when he discusses Lucious C. Conway.

"We love Lucious and pray for him, and we can all say with all our hearts we did everything we could to help the man," laments Jacobs, an ordained Baptist minister and professional gospel singer with a ruddy face and thick salt-and-pepper hair who has run the nonprofit, nondenominational Miami Rescue Mission for twenty years.

While they're praying for Conway, Jacobs and his staff more than likely are squeezing in a few requests for the mission itself, which Conway is suing for $1.5 million in compensatory damages. His handwritten complaint, filed March 1 in Dade civil court, charges Jacobs and several staff members with "intention to inflict emotional distress, defamation of character, invasion of privacy and wrongful discharge." Judge Philip Bloom has denied a defense motion to dismiss the case, for which no trial date has yet been set.

The 32-year-old Conway was a resident of the shelter from November 1994 until two days before he filed his suit, when he was ordered to leave. He had strenuously protested the way he was treated in the mission's required counseling and Bible-study sessions and claims in his suit that staff members divulged information about his health and personal life in front of other residents, called him names, and treated him harshly because he disagreed with them about Biblical doctrine. A pattern of ridicule, criticism, and coercion, he alleges, made him "an emotional reck [sic]," caused him to seek psychiatric help, led him to develop insomnia and resume smoking, and eventually drove him from the shelter.

"They recite [Scripture] and you're supposed to repeat. And if you don't, you got problems," contends Conway, a lean, energetic man with a penchant for berets.

"This is the first time in our 70-something years of existence we've ever faced a lawsuit," counters Jacobs, who asserts that Conway's expulsion from the mission's eight-month Regeneration Program -- and thus from his shelter bed -- came only after he repeatedly violated house rules and rejected efforts to resolve his complaints.

"A lot of the program is counseling and group therapy, and part of the group-therapy process is to confront each other and get to what's really going on with the person," explains Jeffrey Tew, the mission's attorney. "None of the comments any of the counselors made was with any bad intent. They were trying to counsel him and help him with his problems. If he decides he doesn't like the program and quits, he's entitled to, but none of that is grounds for a lawsuit."

Conway, who says he is a paralegal, is acting as his own attorney. In light of his indigent status, the court waived fees for filing the case. Besides his suit, he has filed a complaint with the county's Equal Opportunity Board, charging the mission with housing discrimination. Marcos Regalado, the board's director, determined that the board doesn't have jurisdiction over a religious nonprofit organization.

According to Jacobs, the mission, which is privately funded, has an annual operating budget of $3.5 million and houses 130 men who are enrolled in the eight-month Regeneration Program. Another 100 men are allowed to stay on a short-term basis, while a separate women's shelter is equipped with eight overnight beds and twelve longer-term family units, Jacobs says. The mission also operates a thrift store and conducts an outreach program in Broward County.

Though this is the mission's first experience with a court challenge, Lucious Conway is somewhat of a seasoned veteran who claims to have an extensive history of activism. In 1986 and 1987, Conway says, he helped form a "homeless clients' advisory board" to the administration of then-New York mayor Ed Koch and helped organize a march down Fifth Avenue to publicize the plight of the homeless. He says he also filed a $100 million lawsuit against the District of Columbia in 1987, alleging the district hadn't provided him legally required housing. (Like New York, Washington, D.C., has a "right to shelter" law. Miami has no such ordinance.) Conway says he subsequently left town without pursuing the suit.

He arrived in Miami from his hometown, Detroit, this past Halloween, and almost immediately entered the Rescue Mission. After his ouster, Conway moved into county-run Beckham Hall men's shelter, where he was active in fomenting protests against several practices and policies there. Within three months, Beckham Hall administrators placed him in a Little Havana boarding house, where he now lives. For the past month he has been working as a waiter at a restaurant downtown. He is also a member of a volunteer advocacy, group based at the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, where he performs what he describes as "service delivery advocacy ensuring the protection and welfare of homeless people when they go to service provider agencies, to ensure their civil rights aren't violated."

Some local social-service professionals -- and some homeless people -- question Conway's tactics, particularly his lawsuit. "He certainly didn't have any trouble sleeping there and eating their food," comments a longtime social service worker who knows Conway but who does not work at the mission.

Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, doubts that Conway has grounds to complain about his treatment at the mission. "A private institution has the ability to demand that anyone who has access to services abide by their rules," Blumner says. "If you're assaulted, you can still criminally prosecute for assault, but being humiliated in a program or being told you're a blasphemer does not sound like it rises to the level of a tort."

"We as Christians don't sue each other," declares Ricky Davis, a shelter resident. "We go to each other and try to reconcile our differences. The people who get kicked out of here really want to get kicked out. The way I look at it, when you get here, it's intensive care, you're in bad shape, and if you really want to help yourself, no matter how crazy it sounds, whatever they tell you, you're going to do it."

But Donna MacDonald, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, says requiring down-and-out people to adhere to a set of religious beliefs in order to receive room and board can put them in philosophical quandaries they're not equipped to face. And with Dade's shortage of facilities, most homeless people can't easily transfer to a comparable program. "To me it's an abuse of people when you expect them to act a certain way to get three meals a day and sleeping privileges," MacDonald asserts. "These types of programs don't accommodate people like Lucious, who don't fit a mold.