By DEBORAH K. DIETSCH Arts & Architecture Writer
Homeless shelters aren't the places to try out the latest design statement. They must provide housing, social services and a sense of stability for a changing population. Their humanitarian goals must be accomplished without frills.
The attractive courtyard at the new homeless shelter contrasts with the shabby tent where the homeless once lived near downtown Fort Lauderdale.
For an architect, this is a challenge to say the least. Designing a homeless shelter often ends up as a struggle between conflicting requirements:
Establishing a distinctive identity without offending neighboring businesses and residents.
Providing a secure yet user-friendly building. Combining private quarters for men, women and children with communal uses such as classrooms, offices and dining facilities.
Creating an uplifting environment that doesn't overpower the residents, who are often afflicted by mental illness and substance abuse.
Those were the design dilemmas of the new Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center. They forced the architects to make compromises and hide the building's assets -- a tranquil courtyard and a striking public artwork -- behind impenetrable walls. From the street, the blocklong building, on Sunrise Boulevard between
Northwest Sixth and Seventh avenues, is hardly noticeable. It looks like a pleasant warehouse, a slight improvement over the gas stations, strip storefronts and fast-food chains nearby. The only decorative flourishes on the beige stucco exterior are a few tiled overhangs, corner medallions and perfunctory moldings. The center's low profile was developed to placate the surrounding community. Like many homeless shelters, it was faced with opposition, rooted in the fear that the homeless would bring down the neighborhood. It's a wonder that the center was built at all, given the nearly five years of haggling over the site. The Broward Partnership for the Homeless, the nonprofit group that operates the 200-bed center, agreed to sequester its residents in a protected, well-lit building that didn't advertise its purpose. The facades along the major avenues incorporate windows with built-in hurricane shutters and a few pediment-topped bays, but no doors or major openings.
There's only one way to enter the 53,858-square-foot building -- from the parking lot to the south. A porch leads to the door where a security guard stands watch, and residents are required to pass through a metal detector. Windows and doors are locked, and 32 surveillance cameras are trained on nearly every nook and cranny. Residents must take showers, do chores, follow a nightly curfew (8 p.m.) and be in bed by 10 p.m. They can be kicked out for stealing, using drugs or alcohol, and not turning in weapons or prescription medications. It's all stipulated in a rule book that every resident must sign. Sounds as grim as a prison, but the concrete-block structure -- called the Huizenga Family Campus, in honor of H. Wayne Huizenga's $1 million donation and fund-raising efforts -- does have a heart. The tough perimeter yields to a grassy courtyard planted with oaks and palms that provides a quiet oasis from the streets. Brick pathways lead to an octagonal gazebo with picn
ic tables at the courtyard's center. Staircases lead to generous open-air breezeways on the second floor. From the courtyard, the U-shaped building could pass for a college dorm. It houses classrooms on the ground floor and separate residences for men, women and families on the upper story. An administrative building and a dining hall flank the courtyard's southern end. Within these bare-bones spaces, a variety of programs take aim at breaking the cycle of homelessness. Substance abuse therapy, job training, and educational courses are held in the eight classrooms and a dining hall. The kitchen and barber shop offer residents the opportunity to get on-the-job experience. In the administrative wing, a clinic with its own waiting room supplies medical care, and offices offer consultations by social workers and government bureaucrats. While parents gain new skills, their children are supervised in a two-classroom day-care center, which incorporates
an observation room and an outdoor playground with a jungle gym. Adult activities take place in rooms painted pink, peach and blue, colors chosen to be psychologically soothing. The only truly decorated space in the center is the family dormitory, as a result of volunteer efforts by the Junior League and donations from City Furniture. It's divided into a long suite of bedrooms furnished with wooden bunk beds and a lounge with comfortable sofas, TVs and cabinets full of toys. Murals with platitudes such as "Home is Where the Heart Is" and wallpaper borders adorn the walls. In contrast, the men's and women's dormitories are large open rooms filled with rows of beds. Remarkable art The most inspired part of the building is a remarkable, collaborative public artwork created by the homeless. Unfortunately, its bold composition of childlike drawings, the only overt reference to homelessness in the building, is re
legated to the side of the dining hall, rather than to a more prominent place. The 60-foot mural is the brainchild of Fort Lauderdale artist Tin Ly, who was commissioned by the Broward Cultural Affairs Public Art and Design Program. Ly began the artwork by consulting 40 homeless people in the Broward Outreach Center in Hollywood and Shepherd's Way in Wilton Manors. He asked them to draw their favorite environments, their favorite person and "what they would do after leaving the center." Images included a key, created by a 47-year-old homeless man named Charles, a bed by 4-year-old Teon, a baby portrait by his 23-year-old father Whitley and two space stations by Dustin, age 8. Ly used their line drawings as the basis of his artwork, turning some of them into brightly painted aluminum reliefs and inscribing others into the concrete wall. Several images from the artwork decorate the fences around the property. "I call the work t
he Communal Dream," he says. "My purpose was to elevate the expression of homeless people's lives." Their artistic expression, in turn, elevates the entire building. Bland vs. bright Construction costs for the $7.7 million complex totaled $5 million, a combination of public and private funds. An additional $1.8 million was donated in materials and services. Spearheading the design and construction is local contractor James A. Cummings, who has built several government office buildings and Boys and Girls Clubs in Broward County. Cummings, who waived his $300,000 fee, hired Fort Lauderdale architect Marvin Scharf to design the building at a reduced rate of $150,000. County architect Ed Seymour helped develop the plans. Local designer Susan Storrs volunteered to fine-tune the interiors. The architects modeled the Broward center on Miami's Homeless Assistance Center, which o
pened in 1995. Designed by Miami architects Robert Chisholm and Wolfberg Alvarez , the 80,000 square foot building is located in the Overtown district of downtown Miami on a 2.5-acre lot. It, too, is arranged as a perimeter building inwardly focused on a courtyard. Accommodating up to 350 people, the Miami complex incorporates four dorms for men, two for women and one for families; it also has an administrative wing and a freestanding dining hall. Chisholm, who with Wolfberg Alvarez also designed the new South Miami-Dade County shelter on the former Homestead Air Force Base, describes the building as a "tropical climate solution" with covered walkways and sitting areas that protect residents from the sun. Where the Broward center's exteriors are bland, the Miami shelter's are bright. Each functional component is distinguished by a different hue: blue for administrative areas, yellow for support services, mustard for housing, and orange for circulation. The colors vis
ually break down the building mass and achieve a cheerfulness missing from the Fort Lauderdale structure. According to operations manager Al Brown, more than 10,000 people have taken part in the Miami center's programs since its opening in September 1995. Many of the classes are run by the Miami-Dade public school system. They include English as a second language; life skills; and culinary arts. Brown claims a 58 percent success rate in placing residents in substance abuse programs, transitional and permanent housing. With more room and construction dollars for the Fort Lauderdale center, the Broward design team obviously benefited from the Miami experience. Brown says that the Miami center has had a higher percentage of families than anticipated, with an average of 80 to 100 children per day. He encouraged the Fort Lauderdale architects "to build a center in a flexible way so areas can be converted." As a result, the Browa
rd center's 40-bed family dorm is divided into 10 rooms that can be interconnected or separated according to the size of the family. The next step Missing, however, is a key ingredient of the Miami center's success -- its location near city services and institutions. Just blocks away from the older shelter are the Miami skills center and Jackson Memorial Hospital (where residents can apply their patient-care training), as well public transportation. The Fort Lauderdale building, on the other hand, abuts an industrial district isolated from urban connections, reinforcing its image as a fortress secured against the outside world. It's still too early to predict the long-term success of the Broward homeless center, which opened Feb. 1. Currently, the building houses 125 men and women, mostly from Tent City, which closed Feb. 12. The first families are eligible to move into the center on March 1.
Residents are allowed to stay in the center from 60 to 90 days. The shelter provides the first stage of what homeless advocates call a "continuum of care," a rehabilitative approach that extends from emergency shelter to transitional and permanent housing. Last December, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted Florida $29.4 million for such continuum-of-care programs, as well as $6.2 million for emergency shelters. Of these funds, $3.1 million will help support transitional housing and permanent units for people with disabilities throughout Broward County. Meanwhile, another 200-bed homeless shelter is being planned for a 7-acre site on Blount Road in Pompano Beach. "We'll certainly be using the design (of the Sunrise Boulevard facility) and making modifications as needed," says Steve Werthman, administrator of the Homeless Initiative Partnership, which implements continuum of care programs. In planning that facility,
homeless advocates and county officials have a genuine opportunity. They could build on the amenities of the Fort Lauderdale center, such as the courtyard sanctuary and the sensitive public artwork, and link the shelter to city services, as Miami does. Form would follow philanthropy. And the homeless shelter model, where design is traditionally an afterthought, would advance a step further.