Down and Out in Broward County

Many of the homeless are substance abusers who've spent most of their lives on the streets. And no new county system will change that.

The two men stand in front of the Broward County Addiction Recovery Center on an unseasonably hot morning in early February, smoking and joking about the dangers of clap. One is tall, skinny, and talkative, dressed in a sweat jacket, a black man with huge eyes set in a gaunt face. He looks like a guy who just got out of the drunk tank, which he is. He's committed crimes in the past, and he doesn't want to draw attention to himself, so he'll be referred to as Mike Jefferson. The other man, who has a criminal record, is short, muscular, and quiet, a Hispanic man neatly dressed in jeans, tennis shirt, and a Yankees cap. He'll be called Ray Willis.

A couple hours ago, Willis and Jefferson were discharged from treatment at the detox center near Fort Lauderdale police headquarters on Broward Boulevard, and they're waiting for a counselor to find them housing. Before entering detox Jefferson was drinking heavily, Willis was drinking and using heroin, and both were living on the street. That's pretty much been their lives since they were teens, with intermittent periods of employment. But today they speak with deadly earnestness about getting clean and sober. Middle age and mortality are pressing in, and they're too tired to return to their old lives of homelessness, violence, and prison.

Willis, a twice-convicted felon, is scared of losing control under alcohol's influence, committing another offense, and being sent away for life. Jefferson is afraid of developing kidney or liver disease, like many of the other alcoholics he sees on the street. "If I didn't want to get sober so bad, I would have gone out and gotten drunk, with all that I've been through in the last three days," he says.

Another man, also just discharged and waiting for housing, sleeps on a nearby bench. A detox center staffer opens the front door and calls out a name. Willis and Jefferson glance at the snoring man. "Let him sleep," the staffer says. "We'll call him later." But, with a nod from Willis, Jefferson walks over and nudges the man awake. "If he don't get up, he don't get no bed tonight," Jefferson explains.

But even those who are wide awake may not get a bed. Most of the detox center staff are on retreat, and the few remaining employees don't know if they can find Willis and Jefferson a place to stay. Because Fort Lauderdale's infamous Tent City will close in a few days (February 12), it isn't accepting new residents, and the two men absolutely refuse to go there anyway. The shiny, new, $9.4 million Homeless Assistance Center has no room because it's filled with former Tent City residents, who are considered a top priority by county and city politicians promising to solve the homeless problem pronto.

To kill time Jefferson pulls out his Tent City photo ID. He and Willis giggle at the thought of flashing it if the police stop them for vagrancy. "You can't arrest me," Jefferson laughs. "I'm a legal homeless person."

Willis and Jefferson end up waiting for hours before a female staffer finally comes out and tells them she has nowhere to send them. "We're in a mess, because the county took all our housing voucher money and is using it to place Tent City residents," she explains. She offers to readmit them to detox and let them wait for a referral. Both men shake their heads. "That's just going backwards," Willis says politely but firmly.

Instead she sends them to see a county homeless outreach worker at the central bus station on Second Avenue. The worker, a weary-looking woman wearing the county's official aqua-green tennis shirt, first offers them a ticket out of town -- anywhere in Florida they want to go. They scoff at the idea. She suggests one of the religious-based shelters, which requires daily Bible lessons. "They use the Lord's name in vain, for money," snorts Jefferson, who's been there before. She makes several more calls on her cell phone, comes up empty-handed, and scurries off to attend to some business at Tent City across the street.

Growing discouraged Willis and Jefferson wait a little, inhaling bus fumes, then go looking for the county worker in Tent City, now a half-empty concrete lot where as many as 400 people had recently slept on bedrolls and cardboard. "It's like a city of lost souls," Willis mutters, watching a muscular man in boxer shorts brushing his half-dressed girlfriend's hair. "I spent one night here with my back to the chainlink fence. I can't stand coming in here."

But this time it pays off. The outreach worker finally offers them a placement at House of Hope, a halfway house for recovering substance abusers, where both have stayed previously. After a day of waiting and wandering, they walk a mile to House of Hope, which is located just half a block from the detox center. "This has been a degrading experience, but it's a lesson on my ass," Willis says sheepishly. "If I could stay [at House of Hope] for six months, work, and save up money, I could get my own place. That would be perfect."

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