[Hpn] City looks south for homeless solutions

William C. Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 4 Jul 2005 09:12:01 -0400

City looks south for homeless solutions

Published July 4, 2005


MIAMI - They called it "The Slab."

It was 1994 and each night the homeless would huddle on the sidewalk outside
a row of storefronts on Miami Avenue.

 Randolph Hall, 51, would press himself against the buildings, hoping the
awnings would shield him from the rain. He was so numb from cocaine and
other drugs he didn't really understand where he was.

 "I had come to the end of my rope," said Hall, who grew up in Ybor City and
played drums in a band before drugs took over his life. "There was nothing
else for me to do."

 In 1995, the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust opened the Homeless Action Center
facility down the street from The Slab. It was a one-stop shop where people
could find shelter and the tools to rebuild their lives.

Hall found his way there shortly after it opened. Today, he is an assistant
in the center's kitchen and leads Narcotics Anonymous sessions. He's also
preparing to buy his first house.

"These people, they saw something in me," Hall said. "They gave me back my

Last week, a group of Pinellas County and St. Petersburg officials traveled
to Miami-Dade and Broward counties to get ideas for addressing the growing
homeless problem.

They visited homeless action centers in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They
talked to police officers about building relationships between the homeless
and law enforcement. And they discussed fundraising with leaders of the
business community.

"There are a lot of interesting ideas out there," said St. Petersburg Mayor
Rick Baker, one of about 30 people on the trip. "This gives us a chance to
think about the problem, talk about it and formulate our own plan."

* * *

By the late 1980s, Miami was overrun by the homeless, who built massive tent
cities along Biscayne Bay and camped beneath expressways in cardboard boxes.

In 1988, 5,000 homeless people filed a class-action suit against the city,
saying they were being harassed by police to drive them out of the city. A
federal judge directed the city to establish two "safe zones" where homeless
people could sleep without fear of arrest.

In 1992, Gov. Lawton Chiles approached Alvah Chapman, the chairman and CEO
of Knight Ridder, a national newspaper chain then based in Miami. After some
urging, Chapman agreed to lead the Governor's Commission on the Homeless.

Early on, the commission decided it needed a dedicated source of money. So
the members proposed a 1 percent sales tax on large restaurants in
Miami-Dade. The Legislature signed off on the idea in the last six minutes
of the 1993 session.

Elected officials, business leaders and social service providers joined
together to create the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, which administers money
from the tax and advises the County Commission. The tax generated about
$9-million last year.

But trust members decided there should also be a private sector branch.
Under Chapman's leadership, a nonprofit group called the Community
Partnership for the Homeless Inc. was created, and the two organizations
formed a public-private partnership.

Members of the partnership toured the country, searching for ideas to solve
Miami's problem. In the end, they created the Homeless Action Center, which
houses people temporarily while they search for permanent housing, enter
drug rehabilitation or mental health facilities or look for a job.

One center is in downtown Miami and the other in Homestead.

"From the beginning, we've always said we'll never eliminate homelessness,"
said Alex Penelas, the former mayor of Miami-Dade who was the first chairman
of the Trust. "What we're trying to do is provide people with an

* * *

It was 2 p.m. and the downtown Homeless Action Center was nearly deserted.
The approximately 100 children who live there were at day camp. Older
residents searched for jobs.

"They're not allowed to sit around on their beds all day," said Al Brown,
deputy director of the CPHI, who led the Pinellas delegation through the
facility. "They can stay here if they're working on a job application but
they need to be doing something."

  The 70,000-square-foot facility has an open courtyard with dormitories
along the perimeter. The walls are brightly colored and the facility is
completely free of litter or graffiti.

There's an onsite day care, a dining hall, health clinic and several
classrooms where instructors from the Miami-Dade public school system teach
graduation equivalency degree classes or trade certification. The center
doesn't accept walk-ins because they don't want lines forming outside the
building. Instead, outreach teams of two people, one formerly homeless
person and a case worker, find people who want to stay at the center. The
case worker continues to work with them while they're at the center.

Residents can stay up to 60 days, although families are sometimes allowed to
stay a little longer. The facility averages about 402 people per night.

 Since 1995, 47,083 people have been served by the two Miami-Dade centers.
Brown said about 60 percent now have jobs and more permanent housing. The
tent cities are gone.

But it doesn't always work the first time. Residents have been known to
return to the center two, three or even four times. They are never refused

"It's like anything else," Brown said. "Sometimes you need a little practice
before you get the hang of it."

Broward County has a similar facility in downtown Fort Lauderdale, which
opened in 1999. The building houses approximately 200 people and offers many
of the same services. It also has a library, a fitness center and a free
clothes closet, all stocked with donations from the public. It uses gas
taxes to pay for it.

* * *

About 4,500 people are homeless in Pinellas County. The number is small
compared to Miami-Dade, which still has about 7,000 people on the streets,
or Broward, with 10,000 homeless. But Pinellas officials fear it is growing.

Last year, the St. Petersburg City Council made helping the homeless a
priority and held a series of workshops to discuss the problem. Since then,
they have joined forces with Pinellas County, which is crafting a 10-year
plan to combat homelessness.

St. Petersburg City Council member Virginia Littrell, who has been very
active on the homeless issue, said she was impressed with several aspects of
the Miami-Dade and Broward programs, particularly sending case workers into
the field to establish contact with the homeless.

The biggest potential hurdle: money.

Some in the local business community may not be as willing to donate money
or pay a tax to help the homeless, particularly since Pinellas' homeless
population is smaller than Miami-Dade's, said Don Shea, president of the St.
Petersburg Downtown Partnership.

 "We just don't have the kind of crisis situation they have down there,"
Shea said.

But Jeff Parker, a local businessman who helped organize the trip and a
longtime friend of Alvah Chapman, was optimistic Pinellas could accomplish
anything with the right leadership, he said.

"They may say homelessness isn't a crisis here right now," Parker said. "But
try telling that to the family who spent last night on the street. It's a
crisis to them."

--Carrie Johnson can be reached at 727 892-2273 or cjohnson@sptimes.com

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