Homeless challenge Beach


The homeless are usually considered transient and rootless,
but Dee and Abraham have been fixtures at North Shore
Park so long their roots practically sink through the ground.

Dee, 47, has called North Shore home on and off for 17
years, while Abraham, 52, her 10-year companion, has
staked out the neighborhood for five years. They don't
consider themselves homeless -- they consider themselves

Among some 300 homeless people in Miami Beach, those
like Dee and Abraham pose what newly elected Mayor David
Dermer calls the city's most serious quality-of-life dilemma.

Miami Beach officials would like to move them off the streets
and into shelters across the causeway in Miami, but they
often are dealing with people who have permanently attached
themselves to a particular park or city block and see no
reason to leave.

As Dee puts it, ``We sit on the basketball court in the
morning and read the newspaper. We do nothing to bother
no one.''


With nationwide numbers getting grimmer -- a March 2000
survey by the Census Bureau found 280,527 homeless
people around the country -- the numbers on the Beach are
expected to increase. Police suspect many homeless
people from Miami cross the causeway for what's perceived
as a better life on the beach.

Some initiatives already in place include a commission
workshop on Jan. 7, the hiring of a homeless coordinator,
Olga Vazquez, in October, and the budgeting of $30,000 to
hire a case manager to work with police.

``The goal of Neighborhood Services and the homeless
outreach is to provide outreach and placement to as many
homeless individuals as possible,'' said Vivian Guzman,
director of Neighborhood Services Department. ``We want to
systematically identify the encampments, assess each
person, see what is the appropriate emergency situation for
them and then schedule placement.''


But a long-term permanent solution may take more than just
assessment and placement, says Hilda Fernandez,
executive director of Miami-Dade's Homeless Trust.

``Something that the Beach may want to work on is
developing a program that says if you go to treatment we'll
provide you with rent vouchers and identify permanent
housing for you to come back,'' she said.

Dermer says ideas like this are what he's looking forward to
hearing at the workshop.

``It is so important to get all opinions related to this issue on
the floor,'' he said. ``I've discussed the issue with
[Miami-Dade] Mayor Alex Penelas and with people in the
state, including the president of the state Senate, who was
very sympathetic. Developing the proper strategy that's right
for Miami Beach as a community and city is something I'm
all ears to.''

Distinct and cohesive groups of homeless people lay claim
to the city's various parks like North Shore and Open Space
Park in the north end, and Lummus, Collins, and South
Pointe Park on South Beach.

Working jointly with the Homeless Trust, the city is
attempting to place those individuals who want help into an
emergency shelter like the one run by the Salvation Army in
Allapattah. Since 2000, the police worked to obtain an
annual $115,000 contract with the Salvation Army, which
provides about 20-30 beds a month. There are no shelters on
the beach.

At an emergency shelter, a homeless person is provided a
bed for 30 to 60 days and is then placed into a transitional
facility that provides support services like substance-abuse
counseling or job training. Following that step, counselors
work with the person to find housing.


So far, Miami Beach has seen some success stories.

Louis Nielsen, 24, sought help from Vazquez, after spending
a week living on the city's boardwalk in Middle Beach.

A former taxi driver in Naples, Nielsen saw little work after
the attacks on Sept. 11 and came to the Beach, hoping
things were better here. He found out they weren't.

``They all really helped me out,'' said Nielsen, who is working
at the Salvation Army and wants to go back to school and
get his GED.

But he is not like most of the homeless people on the

Those sleeping along the seawall or on various benches
along Washington Avenue are older, usually male, and have
a substance abuse problem or mental illness. They are also
labeled as chronic homeless, which means they have been
out there for an extended period.

``I won't lie to you; I do like my alcohol,'' said Lee Jackson,
46, who has lived on the streets of North Beach for almost
three years. And while Jackson said he'd like to find work
again, he really doesn't want to leave the beach to do it.

Neither does Dee.

``I'll never leave,'' she said. ``You'll get robbed there [in
Miami] more than you will out on the street.''


And that is the real challenge for the Beach. Even as things
get more violent on the street -- three of the Beach's seven
homicides this year involved homeless people -- they don't
want to leave.

``The biggest problem is they don't want to go,'' said
Anthony Marten, assistant police chief. ``It's important for
the city to have something to evaluate how things are
working in six months and in eight months.

``What is the history on this individual? There are many that
say that they like their lifestyle. If you have that in 60 to 70
percent of your people, the problem is not going to go away
unless you change your laws.''

For years, the job of outreach on the beach fell into the
hands of the police.

But after a 1988 case known as Pottinger vs. the City of
Miami, in which the ACLU sued the city on behalf of 5,000
homeless people who claimed that police roundups were
unconstitutional, things changed.

``Outreach depends on beds,'' said Sgt. Eduardo Yero, at a
recent homeless committee meeting. ``We can't offer
assistance without beds to take them to.''

Police can give a homeless person sleeping on the street a
choice if there are beds available -- rehabilitation or jail. But if
there are no beds to bring them to, there's nothing an officer
can do.

Police hope to secure an additional 20 emergency shelter
beds and 20 transitional ones.

Homeless answer begs questions

By Liz Balmaseda

An entrenched group of homeless people in parts of Miami Beach is
giving the city's newly elected mayor, David Dermer, what could be
one of his most important challenges.

A story in Wednesday's Herald said the homeless situation poses
what Mayor Dermer believes to be his city's most critical
quality-of-life dilemma.

It's encouraging that the mayor appears to be exploring solutions that
seem to go beyond the cosmetic. He told The Herald he's ``all ears''
on the topic.

Good. However, any meaningful solution to Miami Beach's
``dilemma'' requires not only listening. It requires reviewing the city's
long-held negative attitudes toward the poor, facing the blunders and

It's a telling thing that one of Miami Beach's largest contributors to
homeless programs was a multimillionaire industrialist, Victor
Posner, who chose charity only as an alternative to prison.

Mayor Dermer could start by asking why his city, a mecca for
high-rolling tourists and big-spending restaurant patrons, has chosen
not to participate in Miami-Dade County's one-penny tax on
restaurant meals. That tax, approved by county commissioners in
1993, provides a steady source of funding for Miami-Dade's homeless


He could ask why, instead, his city has opted for rousting homeless
folks and dumping them in Miami. The logic: We're just getting them
to the shelters.

Dermer could question that logic, considering these are shelters his
city has chosen not to support.

Then he could ask about some of the city's policies that have
contributed to further poverty and homelessness. He could ask why
low-income housing tenants have felt the brunt of the city's
misplaced priorities. He could ask why they've been overcharged,
forced to relocate, shut out of their own community.

He could investigate why the Miami Beach Housing Authority has
dragged its heels on projects that would benefit the poor. Ask why it
never built the long-promised refuge for women and children left
homeless by domestic violence.

Ask the authority why six years after committing millions of dollars to
develop the planned Single Parent Family Housing and Resource
Center in South Beach, it has done nothing but stall. That center was
supposed to open at 17th Street and West Avenue in May 2002.
Instead, there's a ``for sale'' sign on the public lot; the authority
scaled back the plan and picked a cheaper location. No big surprise.


And if Dermer manages to get a straight answer from the authority,
then maybe he can pause to rethink what the term ``quality of life''
has meant in his city.

He should ponder why such criteria are imposed only on people who
sleep on park benches. His is a city that has rarely imposed such
standards on murky millionaire developers, corrupt club owners or
crooked bankers.

Remember, this is a city where a thug named Christian Ludwigsen
reinvented himself as club impresario Chris Paciello, who is now
serving time for his role in a Staten Island crime spree that left a
woman dead.

This is also the city where David Paul, former CenTrust chief, now
serving time for bank fraud, spent $3.2 million of CenTrust cash to
renovate his La Gorce Island digs. Quality of life indeed.

Who can forget the notorious Thomas Kramer, the Pac Man of South
Beach waterfront development? Certainly not Mayor Dermer. Some
years ago, he led a grass-roots effort that took on Kramer.

If the mayor can now build upon that sense of activism and broaden
his scope of where the blame needs to be placed, he can truly make
a difference.