A Homeless Soup Kitchen?

All the managers of Cooperative Feeding wanted was a home. They found the property. Then Broward County officials stepped in.

For more than six years, Marti Forman has been searching for a permanent home for Cooperative Feeding Program Inc., the nonprofit agency she heads up that provides hot meals to the needy. And for more than six years, she's encountered nothing but resistance and frustration at every turn.

This year was supposed to be different. This year Forman thought she'd finally found a home. "We thought, 'Yay! We're finally on the home stretch. We're finally there!'" she recalls thinking in a January meeting with Broward county officials.

Sitting beside Forman at that meeting were a civil engineer, an architect, and a local builder, all of whom had volunteered their services to help build Cooperative Feeding a new headquarters building on property it had purchased the year before in unincorporated Broward County. After working for years in scattered church basements and tiny rented spaces, Cooperative Feeding would finally have room to expand and grow.

That was then. Now, four months later, all that's left of Forman's dream is a vacant parcel of useless land and a $130,000 mortgage. The January meeting that had raised her spirits so high ended up dashing them with the news that county zoning statutes would not allow the sort of project Forman had in mind.

To Forman the decision came as a knockdown blow; the agency had already purchased the site (located at 3351 W. Broward Blvd.) just six months earlier and subsequently spent more than $5000 demolishing a vacant building that had stood there.

The decision also left a lingering sense of betrayal, since it took the county more than a year -- from December 1997 to January 1999 -- to get around to letting Forman know that her plans were doomed. Over the course of that same year, Forman and her board members had numerous meetings with various county officials, including several representatives of the very agency -- Code & Zoning Enforcement Division -- that later ruled against her project.

"We were given every green light to go ahead, and that's the only reason we did it," says Louis Abel, president of the Cooperative Feeding board of directors and pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, which cosigned the mortgage. "We don't have this kind of money to throw away."

Fellow board member Martin Kildea, president of Mardi Construction Inc., wonders what he could have done differently. "We went to them from the very first and said, 'Look, tell us if you have any problems.' We kept doing that, for a whole year."

Since its founding in a church basement 13 years ago, Cooperative Feeding has grown into the largest private local provider of hot meals to the needy. Now funded by church donations and a $30,000 grant from the Broward County Human Services Department, the agency has long been frustrated by its lack of a central headquarters building. Currently the agency rents a small office suite in a strip mall in Plantation while at the same time operating a kitchen and pantry in Fort Lauderdale. Both of the spaces are rented. The new headquarters would have doubled the capacity of the kitchen and expanded the agency's services to address problems largely ignored by government.

Especially now that the county has opened its new Homeless Assistance Center (HAC), homeless advocates say there's been more creative energy devoted to hiding the problem of homelessness than solving it. But the HAC is hardly a panacea; it provides few services for the homeless still living on the street.

These were some of the needs Cooperative Feeding was trying to address with the new headquarters building. "In addition to hot meals, we were talking about providing shower facilities and mail drops for walk-ins, intervention counseling -- all sorts of things that the HAC does not provide."

Still, when Forman and Kildea first learned that a vacant property might be available in unincorporated Broward, they proceeded cautiously. Forman's first letter to the county on the subject of the proposed construction is dated December 2, 1997, six months before the agency closed on the purchase. Addressed to Kathy Harris, director of the Broward County Human Services Department, the letter reads: "I would not even begin to move in the direction of spending money for surveys, studies, lien searches, architectural renderings, etc., unless I had an individual at the County who would help us through the maze of red tape we know we must face."

As a result of that letter, Forman says, Harris arranged for her and Kildea to speak with an interagency group called the Development Review Committee (DRC). Forman says the DRC -- the members of which are drawn from all departments that would eventually have to sign off on project plans -- were encouraging and helpful from the start. "We had an architect draw plans," she described the process in a February 17 letter to John Milledge, a member of the county's Homeless Initiative Partnership Advisory Board. "At a 2/4/98 meeting with various county zoning representatives... we were told to remove the words 'warehouse storage' from our sketch since the area was not zoned for warehouses. We retitled that section of the building 'pantry storage.'"

In July 1998, Cooperative Feeding closed on the property. Still the meetings continued, with an array of county officials -- including Jeff Dey from Zoning -- poring over details as small as the size of the parking lot and the location of the dumpster.

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