|January 31, 1999||New homeless center presents quandry for Tent City residents|
By LISA J. HURIASH Staff Writer
FORT LAUDERDALE God knows I dont want to be here, says Cherie Rose as she lights a scented candle in hopes of ridding her Tent City cot of bugs.
Afraid of being ripped off, she stashes the money Mizell earns as a day laborer in her bra while she sleeps. Uncomfortable with the lack of privacy, she walks to the nearby bus station or downtown library rather than use the toilets at Tent City. Afraid of being beat up by other homeless people, she has made a point of being friendly with the security guards.
She and Mizell are recovering drug addicts, and they struggle every time someone under the tents offers them crack cocaine.
We were only supposed to be here for a day, Rose says, bowing her head. When I first came in here, I ran back out, ran down the street. (Mizell) came after me, yelled at me, almost hit me.
Did not! he counters, embarrassed.
Rose continues: I was scared, petrified. He said just one night. Now, every day he comes home he says Im sorry.
I want us to get out of here, Mizell said. But I dont know how.
The city and county want to get them out of Tent City too Rose, Mizell, and hundreds of other homeless people who spend each night in the makeshift shelter across the street from City Hall.
They plan to move many of them to a new shelter on Sunrise Boulevard that will open on Monday, dramatically changing the way the county deals with people who are homeless. It will offer beds and meals, and help them find jobs, medical care, substance abuse counseling, places to live and a new life. But instead of offering a roof and a cot indefinitely, stays will be limited to 60 to 90 days and will require clients to abide by a tough set of rules including an 8 p.m. curfew and 10 p.m. bedtime.
It will be a change for these residents, and a challenge for the county to convince them it will be the right thing.
It is early September. The shell of the new Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center/Huizenga Family Campus is almost complete and the roof is starting to go up. Social workers are starting to nudge Tent Citys residents toward employment and programs that will give them other kinds of help.
At a county-sponsored social services fair, where agencies pitch their services to Tent City residents, Rose makes arrangements to join Shepherds Way, a Methodist ministry for the homeless that offers housing, Bible studies and group counseling. In return, participants must find jobs and give all of their paycheck to the ministry which is saved for them. Once the person saves about $1,500 the ministry helps them find housing and furnishes it for them.
Before the shelter is completed, though, Rose and Mizell will get married, having plotted for months how to save the money for the license, and then theyll be gone, chasing a rumor of a job in Orlando.
The social services workers who have been helping the couple will never know if their efforts have paid off. But at least Rose and Mizell have left Tent City.
Two down, hundreds to go.
The homeless were first given a place to stay at Fort Lauderdales Holiday Park in July 1993. Drug use and crime in the park increased, and residents stayed away.
While the city moved homeless people from Holiday Park to the new Tent City at 101 N. Andrews Ave., the Broward Homeless Task Force called for construction of six permanent shelters by 1996 to house the countys estimated 6,000 homeless people.
But it took nearly five years of bickering, public hearings and negotiations with city officials before the county picked the site on Sunrise Boulevard and later, a second site in Pompano Beach, which will be built within a few years. A third shelter, operated by a private Miami Rescue Mission ope ned in Hollywood in 1997.
During that time, the population in Tent City climbed to as many as 400 people who crowded under the tents when the weather was cold and ate food provided by local church groups that take turns b ringing meals and snacks.
Tucked in a parking lot of asphalt between Fort Lauderdale City Hall and the bus station, just north of Broward Boulevard, Tent City is not much more than several open air tents with plastic sheets on the sides that come down when it rains.
There are fights and drug deals, and the stench of sweat, especially in the sticky summer months. There isnt room for more cots, so some sleep on the ground. Toilets have no doors and showers have no curtains. The people who sleep there complain that others steal the meager belongings they stow under their cots. They worry about catching lice or contracting HIV or tuberculosis. They complain that others bickering, love making and mumbling keep them awake at night.
They walk in and (volunteers) bring them food and they wallow around in that cesspool, said Dr. Fred Scarbrough, director of the Shepherds Way and a member of the Broward Coalition for the Homeless. The drug and alcohol and mental illness problems are rampant ... 95 percent of the people have one or a combination of those conditions.
Among people who work with the homeless, a sense of optimism about Bro ward Countys new direction prevails.
Theres now a strong commitment in the community to see our homeless citizens become successes, said Pastor Allen Reesor, director of the Broward Outreach Center, the homeless assistance center in Hollywood.
Three years ago, he said, the community didnt care if the homeless succeeded, died, (went) back into the bushes, to wherever they came from. Theres been a real movement to see them integrated into the community.
The new $9.4 million Broward County Central Homeless Assistance Center/ Huizenga Family Campus is painted in light pastels, with open-air balconies, playground equipment for children, and a courtyard resembling a college residential campus. It will be very different from Tent City.
Broward County hopes to solve the problems that contribute to homelessness with its service.
But thats not what some homeless people want.
There are too many damn rules, and I refuse to be in a prison, says a woman who identifies herself only as Little Wolf, age 40, who grew up on an Indian reservation. Id rather die than do that. I'm free in spirit.
Little Wolf leans back against a makeshift couch of pillows and stuffed animals, near a drainage ditch she says is mosquito-infested.
She is painting the toenails of her left foot hot pink, but an injury from a motorcycle accident prevents her from bending enough to reach the toes on her right foot.
Little Wolf says she fell into a life of drugs and alcohol after her husband and baby were killed in a car accident years ago. She and her lover, Wesley Rucker, have been at Tent City since last fall. The duo has been homeless off and on for three years. Wesley works in the labor pool businesses that bring a van by every morning. As many men as can pile in are taken to jobs such as construction or painting. They generally earn $40 a day.
Little Wolf says she wants a big house one day. Silver and jewelry. But she isnt sure how to get it. And she knows she is'nt getting it at the tent: They got fights here. You fight to get food, fight to get clothing. You cant sleep at night cause people are fighting, Rucker said.
But the two of them swear they wont live in a building that looks like a jail. And, although today they live on the ground, amid rows of cots jammed together, they say they just want to be left alone by the rest of society.
Little Wolf says she doesnt know what shell do when the tent comes completely down in March. Shell deal with that when the time comes.
Nobody here wants to go, she says. They say you got to be out at a certain time, in at a certain time. Everyone I talk to, they ain't going.
One of the rules at the new center is that only families can share a bed not unmarried couples like Little Wolf and Rucker.
Bob Semak, vice president of Love Thy Neighbor, which arranges for churches and other local groups to feed people at Tent City, worries that many couples will take to the streets rather than be separated.
I pray to God it will work, but I dont think it will, he said.
Tent City solved or at least minimized one problem: It provided a place to sleep for homeless people who camped in Holiday Park, under highway overpasses or on downtown bus benches.
The new center is designed to fun ction more as an assessment center that will direct homeless people to services that can help them deal with other problems substance abuse, lack of job skills. The goal is to give them the means to find housing and take care of themselves.
The new rules which will be provided in a handbook given to new residents on Monday will forbid everything from skipping a bath to the discussion of information about fellow residents with anyone. The shelter will not allow visitors, a medical worker will dispense any prescription drug and no one will be able to spank their children.
The new center probably will serve a different clientele than Tent City: homeless people who want to help themselves, Scarbrough said. He said homeless families who sleep in their cars behind department stores will likely jump at the chance. Those who don't like rules will be a tougher sell.
The tent is not like a residential facility ... we can't make anyone do anything, said Mel Goldberg, clinical supervisor for the countys Human Services Department. Its a problem of motivation. And its a problem of people that have been down and out for a long time. Its hard to fit them into a structured setting.
Officials acknowledge that when Tent City finally closes probably by March 15 they expect many of the people to resist the help and stay homeless.
Some people, due to the fact they've been on the streets longer, may take longer to be accepting of services, but thats the purpose ... to ease them back into society, said Steve Werthman, the countys coordinator of the homeless programs.
That is likely to mean that the community will face some of the same problems that existed before the shelter opened five years ago: homeless people sleeping on bus benches and hanging out in parks.
To deal with those people, the police department is insisting all its officers and even park rangers participate in a class called Homeless 101. Theyll be trained on how to talk to he homeless to convince them that finding a place to go is a smart move.
If they refuse to go, they'll face arrest, but thats only a last resort, said Fort Lauderdale District Commander Bob Pusins.
It's not a crime to be homeless and because someone doesnt go to the (homeless ssistance center) does'nt mean they'll be arrested. We'll be responding to the illegal behaviors, which can include trespassing in a city park after it is closed at night and open container violations, he said.
Other police programs to help the homeless include targeting those in jail, and trying to find housing for them before they are released, Pusins said.
To persuade Little Wolf and others who are resisting the move to the new center, the county first hired caseworkers to work with them, and now is bringing in former homeless people to talk about how they made it in a structured setting.
Reesor, who has worked with homeless people at the new center in Hollywood, said its just a question of time before Tent City residents come around.
Failure has become a pattern for them. I think theyre afraid to succeed. They're afraid to be responsible. They're afraid to face their past. Theyre afraid they can do things people told them they cant do.
Some people will sleep in the bushes a few weeks to figure out they would rather sleep in a bed. Its like disciplining a child ... for some kids it takes longer.
It's only September and Anna Farran, 21, is already fretting at the prospect of leaving Tent City.
The rail-thin hooker with a self-described bad dye job is in the city jail for prostitution. Some day, Farran says, she wants to be a school teacher or a social worker. But today she describes herself as a hustler. Federal Highway is her usual haunt. She charges $20 and promises to stay the night, but always leaves after 15 minutes or so.
Usually I do one (trick) a night, she says, explaining that she and her boyfriend spend the money on food and video games. Twenty dollars lasts us through the whole night.
She said she has been in trouble for 91 misdemeanors and three felonies. She does'nt like the jail and misses the food at Tent City.
Here its much worser,she said. Thats one of the things I miss about Tent City. The church groups bring donuts, cookies and cake and you can have it all.
What hurts her most is being away from her children, a 2-year-old boy adopted by a family and an infant girl being cared for by the father's aunt. She wants that baby girl back and hopes out loud that when shes out of jail she can enter drug rehabilitation, clean up and be a mom again.
But when she is released from jail, she does'nt show up at the group home that Maryann Sanders, her county caseworker, found for her. Counselors at the home would have helped her kick her crack cocaine habit.
In her office in a bus parked across the street from Tent City, Sanders admits that she occasionally wants to shake some of her homeless clients in frustration. They seem genuinely interested in building a new life, and so she arranges the counseling, the education, the housing whatever they need to leave Tent City.
We really spend time making arrangements at A, B, C and D and say to them, Go across the street and get your clothes and come back, Sanders said.
And they don't come back.
Sanders had developed a real affection for Farran, who often disappeared for days at a time. She would comb her young clients hair and listen to her talk about how much she missed the children she could'nt care for because of her drug problems and her frequent arrests.
Then, in the sweet voice full of caring that Farran came to adore, Sanders had pleaded with Farran to take advantage of the help offered by the group home.
Now Farran has disappeared, this time for longer than before, and Sanders is worried.
I care about what happens to her. Shes just a young girl, Sanders says.
It is weeks before someone spots Farran. She is back on the streets, standing on Federal Highway or walking down Broward Boulevard.
Finally, Farran visits her caseworker. She is with a new boyfriend who is taking her to Chicago, where they will live with his mother. She won't be getting her children back, but she'll have a fresh start.
And she wont be going to the new homeless center.
Lack of shelter beds
The new shelter wont have room for everyone at Tent City. It can house only 200 people at a time less than half the number of people who crowd into Tent City on some winter nights.
So the homeless still need a place to go. Homeless people looking for temporary housing have other options: Salvation Army, group homes for substance abusers, Henderson Mental Health Center, Broward Outreach in Hollywood, a new shelter in Oakland Park for women and children and Shepherds Way in Wilton Manors. Unlike the new center, not all of these places limit stays or require people to get a job.
But the lack of beds is a growing problem. Since October, when the county started a hotline (954-524-BEDS), it has gotten about 300 calls a month from homeless people seeking shelter. As of December, only 60 individuals and seven families had been placed.
The barrier to placing callers in programs is simply lack of available shelter beds, said the January edition of the Broward Coalition for the Homelesss newsletter. There is approximately one bed for every 10 callers who desperately need it. We can only hope that with several new programs coming on line in 1999 that the situation will improve.
The county also recently began a program to send the citys homeless back to their home states with a one-way bus ticket, cheese or bologna sandwiches and an apple. About 125 people have been sent home so far.
But these efforts have scarcely made a dent in Browards homeless population, estimated at 6,000.
I don't feel safe in there John Balderson, 43, takes two buses to get from Tent City to his job in computer technical support for a telephone provider company in North Lauderdale. He volunteered for the night shift so he wouldnt have to sleep in Tent City at night.
It's so difficult to get sleep like a normal person cause you got boomboxes going off constantly, cranking till 2 in the morning, he said. He also wants to be away from the racial slurs, the f-word.
Most of the time, he sleeps during the day. Sometimes when he's really exhausted, he puts on a jacket, takes a bus to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport and, hoping to fit in with people who are waiting for a plane, sleeps in relati ve peace.
Balderson, a college dropout, is estranged from his family in Michigan. He has worked a variety of jobs computer programming, fast food, selling shoes.
But, he said, he was never able to save his money, spending it on computer magazines, software and clothes. I'm kind of irresponsible with money, he said.
He came to Florida in March 1997 with the promise of a job only to find it didnt exist. He's been homeless since then and has stayed at the tent off and on.
Since he got a job, hes been sending his mother part of his paycheck to save it for him.
It is September, and he is looking forward to living at the new homeless center, where people wont be able to come and go as easily and he'll feel safer.
Hes not like most of the other people in Tent City, he says he has a job, doesnt drink, doesnt do drugs.
Others in there are escaping from things social ills, criminal prosecution, he said. I hear people bragging about it all the time. I don't feel safe in there.
Balderson is embarrassed that he's homeless. He wants his own apartment. He doesn't want to be labeled a social misfit.
People at the tent were not all drug addicts, winos sleeping on the street with a flashlight. We're people who are dealt bad blows and need a roof over their heads.
But by December, after less than three months on his computer job, he is fired for a personality conflict. The $2,000 his mother has saved for him is gone with his permission, she used it to move to a new assisted living facility.
Completely penniless, he now sells his blood he can do it once every eight weeks. In January, he joined a clinical study for people with high blood pressure. After 16 weeks of taking medication that has not yet been approved by the federal government, he'll get $300.
I'm kind of down in the dumps right now, he said.
Still, when he goes to the first public open house at the new shelter, he likes what he sees and signs up. Everyone was really pleasant, he says.
By Monday, he will be one of first 25 people to move into the shelter.
The county plans to move at least 40 people a week into the homeless center for the next six weeks.
But caseworkers dont know what to do with Balderson when his stay is up.
The new center will offer a wide range of services and treat people an average of 60 to 90 days, but its the after program that worries experts.
Every person who is homeless is different, said Steve Berg, spokesman for the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, D.C. They need different kinds of help to get their lives back on course.
They need a place to live, permanent housing. If there isnt a place to live at the end, then it tends to not do a whole lot of good.
I'll do what I can
Miss Mary, Tent Citys self-appointed den mother, has lived under the tent since 1993. At age 69, she is treated by the other homeless people with a respect that is uncommon in the shelter.
With aspirin and cigarettes, she has learned how to get by in an environment that others find contentious, even hostile. Now she is reluctant to start anew.
Miss Mary, a young man asks. May I please have an aspirin, Miss Mary?
Yes, honey, she says.
Miss Mary, cigarette please, says an even younger man.
I dont have any now, honey, she says with a sigh because this man has interrupted her with a request he has already made too many times in one day. And Im talking.
The young man walks away.
Hes gotta learn, says Miss Mary, who keeps her full name to herself.
While others watch their backs, try to stay out of each others way, Miss Mary is never molested or harassed. Rarely does anyone steal from her she counts her losses at a pair of shoes, a couple packs of cigarettes and two Coca-Colas.
County officials speculate that she spends her entire Social Security check o n aspirin, Preparation H, cigarettes and snacks that she trades for courtesy and security.
Shell never dispense advice, though: I tell them to make their own decisions.
The new homeless center will have a different set-up, and she has not decided whether she will move there.
Moving will be a difficult experience, though. She is one of the few who will miss Tent City and the unconditional respect she received there. But mostly, shell miss the fact she knows what to expect, she says.
Naturally you grow attached to it, she said, turning over a paint can to sit down on. A man who calls himself Vodka Joe stands at the foot of her bed, nodding as she speaks.
Shell miss the likes of the man everyone calls Jr. who buys items such as cameras and clothes and resells them for profit. Shell miss grabbing a broom and helping to straighten the place up.
It's a good idea (being at the tent) if you dont have a better one, Miss Mary says. I need a place.
She pauses. Theres an argument starting in the next tent, but Miss Mary ignores it. She ponders the idea of going to the new shelter.
Theres the possibility of it working there, she says. Ill do what I can.
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