HAC Charts a Changing Role after 2 years in business



January 28, 2001
By LISA J. HURIASH Staff Writer

It started off as a dream for county and city officials who called Tent City -- a makeshift downtown homeless camp -- a cesspool of misery that needed to be replaced by a shelter with rules and empowerment programs.

For many of the hundreds of homeless who crammed Tent City, sleeping on moldy mattresses and wearing their only possessions, the thought of the Homeless Assistance Center -- rumored to be jail-like -- made them cringe.

This week marks the second year since the HAC welcomed the first batch of homeless.

Officials there now admit they were winging it in the program's infancy. They refer to the past two years as a learning process that evolved as homeless people who had initially rebuked the program straggled in one at a time.

"Every day has presented new changes since we came here," said Ezra Krieg, the center's resource development director.

"People were expecting way too much from them in the early steps," added Marti Forman, executive director for the Cooperative Feeding Program and an outspoken advocate for the homeless. "They needed the first year for ironing out problems, deciding what programs to add."

The center, one of several secular and church-sponsored shelters in Broward, still is not a perfect program.

Although officials in Tampa have raved about the county's homeless programs as a model to mimic and are sending the mayor here in February to see the HAC, they point out in a memo that Broward "built 600 new beds in the last two years, but [has] not put [a] dent in number of homelessness."

The county has 4,035 emergency, transitional and subsidized permanent housing beds available, but there are still an estimated 5,000 homeless people in Broward.

"This center can't solve homelessness in South Florida," Krieg said. "What this center does is provide a powerful tool in the fight against homelessness. But it takes lots of organizations and lots of people and lots of funding to truly eradicate it, if it can be done."

Said Steve Werthman, the county's Homeless Initiative Partnership administrator: "You've got to have that full service shelter where people can go and get their wits about them and start looking toward the future and getting essential services," he said.

Lessons learned

Krieg offers a list of changes, most in the past year:

Because about 70 percent of the residents have mental health issues or substance abuse addictions, or both, the center opened a Behavioral Health Care Unit in spring to provide treatment and counseling services.

In October, an "after care" counselor was hired to follow some of the clients once they leave the center. Critics complained that after the homeless complete the 60- to 90-day program, they were often left with no place to go and wound up homeless again. The center has acknowledged that residents' stays are not enough time for many people who need extended care.

The counselor will be available for moral support, and provide practical information about jobs and programs outside the center.

"People with problems need some level of continuous support," said David Freedman, the center's chief operating officer. "You can't change basic lifestyles in a short period of time."

The center got rid of its non-denominational chapel. Officials closed the doors when they realized they were making the homeless dependent on one another -- and not pushing them into the community.

"If they're attending chapel [on] campus, when they leave, their roots remain in the shelter," Krieg said.

The center has hired a full-time vocational coordinator to help residents find jobs.

Officials cracked down on day labor pools by prohibiting vans from entering campus property. Yet, the center acquiesces to the day jobs, which include painting and construction, by packing a lunch so the men don't have to spend their cash on food. Officials are also considering a program that would certify labor pools to eliminate those who allegedly abuse the homeless by making the workers pay to cash their checks.

Over the past year officials also started offering an art class, a fitness center, a multicultural group and a computer class.

"It works wonders"

After a brief stint in jail for dealing in stolen property, Herbert Hackney, 38, wound up homeless with $8 in his pocket after he found his roommate had stolen everything from him, including his cash, clothes and television, and left the country.

Hackney left the center last month, after using his 30 days there to get counseling and to find a job at a restaurant.

"It was a wonderful place," he said, adding that many residents who couldn't abide by the center's no-drug policy dropped out. "If you use it to the best of your abilities, it works wonders for you."

The Broward Partnership for the Homeless, which runs the 200-bed center, boasts that the center became officially full in October, and additionally, there are 10 emergency cots and mats for people to use in the lobby if they are dropped off by police. On cold nights they will allow up to 50 people to sleep on the floor on blankets, and officials say the fact the homeless come to the center is a mark of its acceptance.

"On many levels it's certainly working," Forman said. "There's a big chunk of folks out there who can get help. People are coming out of there successful, and there are those running away; it's not for them. I'm glad it's there, but I know many nights of the week it is not enough, there's no room at the inn."

Executive Director Fran Esposito wants to enlarge the building.

Victories, defeats

Since opening on Feb. 1, 1999, the center has accepted more than 3,000 homeless Broward County single men, single women and families. But only a little more than half of those people obtained permanent housing, reunited with their families or have been placed in transitional supportive housing or residential treatment facilities.

Center officials also have experienced disappointment, especially over the past year. Twice the center has been reined in when it tried to expand.

When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded programs that would create permanent housing, the HAC was turned down for an $868,000 grant that would have provided 20 beds. Esposito pledged she'd try again next year.

And in September, when the center made a bid to operate the homeless center that will be constructed in Pompano Beach, it was turned down. A selection committee opted for the Broward Outreach Center in Hollywood, saying it offered better ideas, including ways to deal with child care and specialized services such as mental health counseling.

A new challenge will be customizing programs to help seniors they never expected.

The center is working to solve a problem not easily fixed. Homeless advocates point to the HAC as a successful model for helping a small number of people but say new national efforts are concentrated on subsidizing permanent housing -- not just providing more emergency beds.

"When we build beds, people continue to be homeless," said Laura Carey, the executive director for the Broward Coalition for the Homeless. "The HAC is worth it; they have 200 beds that are full at all times. That's good news for those 200 people. The problem is that there are still thousands more on the street."

Copyright 2001, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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