What Happens When the Big Tent Folds?

Broward's ballyhooed new homeless shelter won't clear the streets of all vagrants. But the police might.

But homeless people like Chris, who neither look homeless nor seek to change their lifestyles, likely will avoid either arrest or treatment and continue living on the street.

Neither an addict nor lacking job skills, Chris has no use for the HAC. Neither disheveled nor lacking goals, he won't be targeted as an undesirable and forced to leave town.

For him the solution can be as simple as finding affordable housing that isn't surrounded by drug dealers, having more access to transportation to get to work, and finding a regular shower.

Steve Werthman, the contract administrator between Broward County and HAC, says the county is applying for $29 million in federal grants to help expand programs for the homeless, as well as to create new ones. That money hasn't been available to Broward County before because it didn't have a working plan to help the homeless.

Until some of that money comes through, however, the only new services will be in the HAC, the first stop along a "continuum of care." Designs for the HAC would include emergency shelter for as many as 200 homeless, counseling services for clients who can stay between seven and sixty days, placement in transitional housing, and help finding permanent affordable housing.

But there is insufficient transitional and affordable housing available in Broward County, and county officials have been unable in past years to get federal funding for more because it had no plan to combat homelessness. So the HAC has been touted as a way to open funding doors and to let Broward County get a handle on its 6000 homeless, about 1000 of whom are children.

For details of the HAC's social programs, Werthman referred questions to William Keith, president of the HAC's board and a principal at the influential engineering firm of Keith and Schnars.

Keith says it's too early to talk about what kind of programs the HAC will provide. The board, created four months ago, has concentrated on raising $3 million and negotiating the finer points of landscaping at the three-acre site at Sunrise Boulevard and Northwest Seventh Avenue to appease neighborhood residents and business owners.

"Our initial thrust was to get our site, get the permits and start construction," Keith says. "Things just take time."

When asked about the HAC's social programs, Keith indicated that other facilities in town would provide that kind of help and referred questions to Werthman.

Several homeless advocates questioned whether Keith's board could properly handle the task of designing programs to help the homeless. The board is composed of 26 volunteers from around the county, mostly lawyers, business executives, engineers, and contractors.

"It's the power brokers," says Arnold Abbott, founder of Love Thy Neighbor, who coordinates meals at Tent City. "It's appalling to me that not one of them has any experience with the homeless, except not wanting them around."

Only one board member holds a position with a social service that helps the poor and homeless -- Kevin Leonard, president of the board of directors for Henderson Mental Health Center. The executive director of the Broward Coalition for the Homeless, Laura Carey, has been appointed as an ex officio member.

"Yes, we felt as though someone from the Coalition should have been on the board," says Dianne Sepielli, former president of the Coalition. "When we first saw it, we said, 'oh my goodness. You see a lot of power, but where's the heart?'"

Allen Reesor, current president of the coalition and director of the Broward Outreach Center, the county's first homeless shelter, in Hollywood, says he thinks the HAC board should be restructured to accommodate more homeless advocates and social service agencies once the construction phases are completed.

At a recent workshop sponsored by the HAC board, Vice Chairman Elliot Borkson, a lawyer with Atlas Pearlman Trop & Borkson, could not answer audience questions about tuberculosis contamination among clients, how the HAC's programs would differ from what the Salvation Army provides, or what educational opportunities would be available.

"A lot of us don't even understand what homelessness is about," Borkson admitted. "I don't understand it when I see people on the street. But it happens, and I know some of these people just need a little help."

But there are hundreds of people who need a lot of help and hundreds more, like Chris, who want no help at all in getting off the streets. The Coalition has begun working on how to reach those two groups and avert the inevitable conflict that will arise when the HAC opens and Tent City closes.

"There needs to be some sort of safe zone, perhaps something similar to St. Laurence Chapel," Reesor says, referring to a day center for homeless people in Pompano Beach where people can get a shower and a hot meal. "We've got to come up with something.

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