Sweet baby Jesus would be so proud of the people running Family New Life Center in Wynwood. The homeless family shelter is run by Catholic Charities, a non-profit social service division of the Archdiocese of Miami. The wrought-iron gated 15-room facility provides downtrodden families rooms for $200 a month, plus a plethora of programs to help them get back on their feet.
On Tuesday, December 12, Family New Life director Wilton Escarmant evicted Shantaa Smith and Carissa Blankenship, two single mothers who were protesting deplorable living conditions at the center. "They're supposed to be helping you get off the streets," Smith groused. "Instead, they're throwing us out two weeks before Christmas."
At the heart of the dispute: a mold infestation plaguing the building, located at NW 36 Street and First Avenue.
Last November, Smith and her son moved into the center. "I was diagnosed with depression," she said. "I had no job and I needed help." At first, everything seemed fine. Smith says the center cut her a break and only charged her $50 a month during her first three months. The rent gradually increased as Smith got a job and earned money. Smith had to abide by strict rules. For example, residents are not allowed to have their own room keys. If they have to leave, they must lock their doors and upon their return ask an onsite monitor to open their rooms. They are also not allowed to bring any food into their rooms.
When Smith began complaining about the mold and alleging mistreatment by center employees, she was pegged a trouble maker. But the 26-year-old wasn't the only outraged resident.
Blankenship, who had lived at Family New Life for the past seven months, repeatedly harangued the facility's supervisors about the mold infestation. New Life employees made superficial corrections such as repainting the walls or move people into another room.
"The mold would seep right through the new coat," Blankenship said, as she gave me a tour of her bathroom shower stall where mold had completely spread behind the wall tile and across the ceiling. "In one room, they carved out a section of the wall, replaced it, and the mold still came back," added the 20-year-old, who has two sons.
Takinda and Mikell Byrd moved in four months ago. The couple have four children: three toddlers and a one-month-old baby girl. Takinda Byrd took pictures of the mold that had accumulated underneath the air conditioning unit and the walls of the first room his family moved into. Takinda says he would clean it up, but that the mold kept coming back. The center's employees moved them into the room next door, but they still got sick.
"All of us had to go to the hospital because of upper respiratory infections and strep throat," Mikell Bird says. "We had to put the kids on nebulizers."
She gave birth to their second daughter this past November 24. Two weeks later, Mikell says, she took the baby to Jackson Memorial Hospital's emergency room, where the child was diagnosed with a staph infection. According to the follow-up medical report from the University of Miami Pediatrician Center, the physicians cited mold spore exposure as a possible cause. "Instead of trying to solve the problem," Takinda Byrd grumbled, "they're evicting people."
On December 11, Smith circulated a petition condemning their living accommodations. The same day, Smith and Blankenship received eviction notices letters from Escarmant.
According to the correspondence, the two women were evicted because they verbally abused other residents; failed to treat staff with respect and courtesy; and failed to comply with the rules of the program. Family Life also demanded they pay back rent: $600 from Smith, $400 from Blankenship.
While I met with Smith and Blankenship Tuesday morning, Escarmant appeared and demanded the women leave the premises immediately. "I want the two of you off the property," he snarled. He ignored my questions, as did other center employees.
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Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta says the center is a short-term assistance facility. "On average families are only supposed to stay for six months," she said. "These two families had stayed beyond that time and broke the rules. So we asked them to leave."
What about the toxic mold? "Every family is responsible for cleaning their rooms," Agosta replied. "The mold exists because of a lack of cleanliness by the clients."
Smith and Blankenship scoffed at Agosta's response. "That's just ridiculous,"
Blankenship retorted.-Francisco Alvarado