Gimme Shelter

Allen Reesor's friends-and-family program has other homeless-services professionals crying foul

As Sgt. Scott Russell eases the police van into the parking lot of St. Andrews United Methodist Church, a ragtag throng quickly surrounds it. Each Thursday evening, the Fort Lauderdale church, just a half mile north of City Hall, serves a meatloaf dinner for the city's poor and homeless. Many have waited for hours to plead their cases to Russell and Richard Courtney, members of Fort Lauderdale's homeless outreach team, who always stop in just before the meal is served. About 25 men and women press the van's open windows, their arms jutting out with clutched Social Security cards.

Russell and Courtney, who works for the advocacy group Broward Coalition for the Homeless, begin a homeless triage -- interrupted frequently by calls to their four cell phones. Via phone and face-to-face conversations, they ask for names, listen to hard-luck stories, and try to find homeless men and women a place to live for a while off the streets.

"I just got out of jail today," pleads Ronald, a short, muscular 37-year-old dressed in a white T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. "I've got to have some establishment for probation or I'm going to go right back in there." His arm is out shot-straight holding a dog-eared Social Security card; the limb shakes feebly despite its knotty musculature. He's been in jail the past five months and, in the meantime, lost his vehicle, construction business, and home. He looks ready to snap. He desperately wants in to the nearby Central Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) near Sunrise Boulevard and Andrews Avenue, one of two facilities that contracts with Broward County to provide emergency shelter. "I'm not like other people," he implores. "I'd take advantage of the services at the HAC. I'm a very productive person."

"Everybody wants to be in the HAC," Russell replies, adding that others here have already been given those openings. "The best thing you can do for yourself tonight is go to Helping People in Hollywood," he concludes. "In Hollywood, you'll have a home. If you go to the HAC or the Salvation Army, you'll have to leave in the morning and you'll have to tell your probation officer you have nowhere to stay."

Russell is distracted by the entreaty of Diane, a well-dressed young woman who was recently released from prison and claims to have been disowned by her family. Ronald shakes his head and mutters dissatisfaction with Helping People, the often-maligned private shelter that nevertheless serves as a last-resort destination for many seeking a place off the streets. He grabs back Russell's attention and announces that Helping People just isn't for him.

"You're making a decision that will probably result in a trip back to the big house because you won't have a permanent address," Russell advises evenly. "Bad choice? I think so."

Another man pleads for a slot at the Central HAC. Russell answers: "Are you on probation too? No? Well, he's more desperate than you," he says, poking a thumb toward Ronald, "because what governs his freedom is whether he has a place to stay. He has limited choices. You can stay on the street."

That's the hard logic of dealing with the county's estimated 5000 homeless people: There are always more bodies than beds. The Central HAC provides housing for 200 men and women for up to two months. The other county-funded shelter, the South Broward Outreach Center (BOC) in Hollywood, is contracted to furnish 59 emergency beds for stays up to two months and 31 "transitional" beds for periods up to eight months. The county's North HAC, scheduled to open late this summer, will provide another 200 emergency beds. The Salvation Army in Fort Lauderdale has 56 beds and eight family rooms for emergency stays up to two months.

In September 2000, the Broward County Board of Commissioners awarded Miami Rescue Mission, the nonprofit organization that operates the BOC, the contract for running the North HAC, the last of three planned regional emergency shelters. The North HAC has long been needed in the Pompano Beach area, which is home to several county jails that routinely churn out inmates with no place to live. Some who work with homeless people, however, are concerned about how effective the North HAC will be as an emergency shelter.

"If BOC had been in Fort Lauderdale instead of the HAC, we wouldn't have made near as much progress as we have," Russell says after delivering a dozen people from the meatloaf dinner to the Central HAC and the Salvation Army shelter on Broward Boulevard near I-95. None went to the Broward Outreach Center, despite its status as an emergency shelter; that, says Russell, is typical.

The team, which began work in 1999, took about 2000 people to shelters last year. Almost 1700 went to Central HAC and the Salvation Army, but only nine of them went to BOC. Many homeless people resist going to BOC, a shelter whose program is largely focused on its eight-month transitional plan rather than shorter-term emergency stays. "You've got to give people options. I'm a big believer in options," Russell offers.

Moreover, the presence of transitional beds in the BOC creates a low turnover of emergency beds. While the Central HAC is required by city ordinance to find its clients transitional shelter elsewhere within 60 days of admission, the BOC's emergency beds can remain filled longer with clients waiting to move through the eight-month program.

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