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Down and Out in Broward County

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."

 

He'd get no argument from city and county officials, who closed Tent City because they said they didn't want to support homeless people in their bad habits. "The bottom line is if these people are going to opt out of getting help, then we are going to run them out of town," says Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Tim Smith.

That attitude helped shape Broward County's new homeless services system. It's centered around the Homeless Assistance Center, which is supposed to provide short-term housing only as a way to deliver services and rapidly launch homeless people into productive lives. But with 200 beds, the shelter can't accommodate more than a small percentage of Broward's homeless population, which county officials estimate at 5000. The shelter's social service offerings at this point are limited. Strict house rules guarantee that many residents won't last long there. And most homeless advocates and service providers believe that the idea behind the new system -- that everyone can and wants to be helped -- is wishful thinking.

At least one-third of the homeless are chronic alcoholics and/or substance abusers, according to a survey conducted by the Broward Coalition For the Homeless. Many, like Willis and Jefferson, are deeply scarred by childhood abuse and other traumas and have cycled through the county's system many times. Even if they are committed to recovery, the system's public and private services are greatly uneven in quality and leave lots of holes for homeless people to fall through, as the experiences of Willis and Jefferson demonstrate.

Even sympathetic observers say the county will continue to struggle with hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless people who will repeatedly fall off the wagon. And if they don't have a shelter similar to Tent City, they'll sleep on the streets like they always have, renewing the cycle of complaints that led to the creation of Tent City in the first place. That process has already started and is prompting calls for a new safe haven to replace Tent City.

Willis, with characteristic honesty, admits that he isn't sure his recovery plan won't crash and that he won't end up back on the street. "I've been clean and working before," he says. "Then, suddenly, all I can think about is using. I just keep sabotaging myself."

Steve Werthman is the county's coordinator of homeless services and one of the main architects of the new system. A man whose boyish features contrast with his stooped walk and worried demeanor, Werthman wanders around Tent City as workers strike the last tent in mid-February, looking like a general surveying the battlefield after a bloody victory. About 50 residents huddle on benches and sleeping rolls, waiting for vans to cart them to the Homeless Assistance Center just over a mile away. "This is like the Black Hole of Calcutta. I'm glad it's closing," he says. "It was bad for people. It encouraged them to do nothing to help themselves. It was a den of crime and a public health hazard."

Despite the harsh words, Werthman admits that closing Tent City won't solve the problem. He used to work with the homeless on the streets as an outreach worker. So he knows that their journeys to sobriety, employment, and permanent housing is full of wrong turns and that some may never reach their destinations. He also concedes that the county is far short of the services -- he calls them "the continuum of care" -- it needs to assist homeless people.

Broward County makes use of the federal government's very broad definition of homelessness to come up with its figure of 5000, one that includes people living in temporary shelters and others who choose not to seek shelter at all. In determining the kinds of help homeless people need, however, the county does a definitive job of categorizing the homeless and determining shortages. For example, until the year 2001, when another 200-bed shelter is scheduled to open in Pompano Beach, 138 single people without children, out of a total of 880, have no place to stay at all, according to the homeless coalition. For those like Ray Willis and Mike Jefferson, who are leaving emergency shelters or treatment facilities and need a temporary place to stay, the shortage is even greater; only 942 beds are available for 1672 people. An even bigger deficit exists for affordable permanent housing: 2217 units needed, 331 available.

 

And housing is not all these people need. There are shortages in slots for job training (3366 needed, 167 open), substance abuse treatment (1560 needed, 900 open), and many other services. Werthman is busy trying to plug these gaps by getting more federal funding and nudging private agencies to collaborate. But it's going to be a long, hard fight.

He looks pained when asked what should be done about the people who remain on the streets, even when services are there for them. In Orlando and Jacksonville, pavilions known to many as "wet shelters" provide homeless substance abusers with a safe place to sleep, so long as they don't bring drugs or alcohol into the facilities. Advocates for the homeless favor opening a wet shelter in Broward County -- a neater, better-run Tent City -- to supplement the Homeless Assistance Center. But the idea is anathema to politicians, neighborhood groups, and the business community, who don't want "undesirables" around, committing crime and lowering property values. "Citizens are fed up with the homeless," says Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle. "If someone wants a wet shelter, fine, but not in our city. We've done our part."

Werthman struggles with this, clearly pulled between realpolitik and the reality of the streets. "I have mixed feelings about wet shelters," he says, choosing his words carefully. "But there's no one in this county who would support or fund a wet shelter."

Ray Willis shares the politicians' criticisms of people he saw in Tent City who didn't try to help themselves. Yet he admits that he would have liked a safe place to sleep when he fell off the wagon -- and might need one again. Two years ago he had to sleep in an abandoned building on Broward Boulevard. During the night someone almost broke his wrist stealing his watch.

Last fall he thought he was finally on his way to recovery. He was living at House of Hope and working a construction job. His boss liked him, and he was making $12 an hour. Then he met a woman at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and soon moved in with her. "I always pick the wrong women," Willis says with a rueful smile, rubbing the panther tattoo on his forearm that covers up the King Heroin insignia he had grown ashamed of. "She begged me to move in with her. I knew I shouldn't, but I melted. I have this white knight thing -- I want to rescue people." She soon relapsed, and he followed, ending up in Tent City for a two-night stay last November. "It was dangerous in there," he recalls, "but at least they had a security guard."

Willis, who's 46 years old, yearns for a life he's had only for brief spells during the past decade: an electrician's job, his own apartment, a car, a girlfriend who doesn't drink or do drugs. You'd think these things wouldn't be beyond his reach. He's intelligent, pleasant-looking, a good listener, and he likes hard work. But he lacks self-confidence and is easily influenced by others, which his mother blames on how he grew up. Willis' father, a bank robber and out-of-control gambler, often beat his wife viciously in front of Willis and his three brothers. Willis doesn't remember his father abusing him, but his mother says that when she came home from work, her son would sometimes be hiding under the bed.

Today Willis is a seemingly gentle man who speaks up for other homeless people he feels are being abused. But he was once a predator. During the '70s, usually under the influence of alcohol, Willis pulled off a string of armed robberies with the help of a girlfriend. He accidentally suffocated one of his victims while gagging the man and served eight years in Sing Sing for manslaughter. But, as he and his mother agree, he's a completely different person when he drinks. "I get real nasty and violent. I think I'm Superman," he admits. But he swears that life is over. "When I think about it now, it's another world."

Willis' mother, who lives in western Broward, has stood by her son through three decades of smack, booze, crime, prison, recovery, and relapse. She's a warm, talkative woman with an accent straight from Brooklyn, where she raised Willis and his three brothers. She recently retired after 20 years of working with a large company, and she's seen all four sons battle drug and alcohol abuse. One was murdered in a drug deal, one used heroin and slept in subway tunnels, and another became an alcoholic. After suffering a nervous breakdown, she moved to Florida in 1976 to escape the family chaos.

 

Now she's tougher. In the past she's let Ray stay in her house, but since his relapse last fall, she has refused to let him live with her even briefly. "Maybe by being out there in the streets, [Ray] will learn, maybe he'll finally do something with his life," she explains. "He's such a good person -- you can see that. But he's weak, and that's what I can't understand. I'm just so discouraged."

Living on the streets did wake him up, temporarily. Disgusted by conditions in Tent City, Willis entered the Salvation Army work program for alcohol and substance abusers last November. It's one of the transitional housing options for the homeless and recovering addicts. The Salvation Army requires residents to work for their keep by unloading furniture and appliances for its resale store on Brow ard Boulevard.

But Willis broke a finger and a toe while lifting. And he cringed when he saw a 60-year-old, physically disabled man, reeking of alcohol, moving refrigerators. While Willis is used to working hard on construction jobs, he got angry and dropped out of the Salvation Army program in January. "They work you like a dog, offer no treatment, and when you get out, you got nothing saved because all they pay you is a $7 a week 'gratuity,'" he says. "That's the only program I've been in where I felt totally ripped off." (The Salvation Army did not return calls for comment on this issue.) As a result Willis checked into detox in order to get a referral to another housing program.

After discharge from detox in early February, Willis and Jefferson were delighted to get a referral to House of Hope, which usually has a waiting list. Even though House of Hope is considered one of the best transitional programs in the area for recovering addicts, executive director Geri Pippitone estimates that only about half the 900 people who participated in the program last year remain clean and sober.

Willis and Jefferson, unfortunately, didn't get the chance to make full use of the facility. When they arrived they'd hoped to receive county vouchers to pay for six-month stays so they could work without interruption and save money. But vouchers, at the time, were in short supply, because the county was spending all available funds to place Tent City residents. Willis and Jefferson got vouchers for only a one-night stay, after which they were sent to another halfway house farther west on Broward Boulevard, called Dean's Place, which was more willing than House of Hope to wait for payment from the county.

Dean's Place is a nondescript, one-story apartment complex that primarily serves the mentally ill, so it wasn't the right place for Willis and Jefferson. It has no recovery program for addicts, and it's located in a tough neighborhood, far from jobs, stores, and transportation. Once during their stay, Willis and Jefferson were sitting in the courtyard, playing Scrabble, when bottles suddenly rained down on them. The neighborhood kids were throwing them, calling the men "mentals."

During their stay Willis, Jefferson, and some of the other men rose before dawn every day to take a city bus to seek employment at the day-labor agencies located near Sunrise Boulevard and Dixie Highway. They lined up, along with other homeless people, in bleak waiting rooms for an hour or two to be selected for construction cleanup or warehouse jobs. Although most of the jobs pay only minimum wage, each person is charged $3 for the van ride that takes him to and from each job.

Some of the men are drunk when they climb aboard or drink on the way. Willis says he stayed clear of them, because he was injured once by a drunken worker who threw a shovelful of rocks backward without looking. At least half the men are dismissed before lunchtime because of inebriation or laziness. At quitting time Willis sometimes waited as long as two hours for the labor-pool van to pick him up. All told, a 14-hour day -- starting with the bus ride at 5 a.m. and ending with the ride home at 7 p.m. -- usually brought in about $35.

Those who work with the homeless and recovering addicts believe that the labor pools are bad for people like Willis and Jefferson. Some agencies exploit the workers, for instance, by paying them with a check, then charging a check-cashing fee.

Giving addicts a pocketful of cash every day, even if it's just $35, is asking for trouble. Workers are prone to spend it quickly on booze, drugs, or other unnecessary items, which doesn't leave much for the deposit and first and last months' rent for an apartment. Willis says he's relapsed in the past while in the labor pool because it exposes him to too many people who are using. He'd much prefer to get a regular job. But he's caught in a Catch-22. He doesn't have the luxury of waiting for a regular job offer, because most transitional housing programs require residents to pay rent right away.

 

And affordable permanent housing is in short supply. One option is the numerous efficiency apartments and motel rooms on and around Federal Highway between Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. But many of them, crawling with addicts and prostitutes, charge at least $100 a week, a huge sum for minimum-wage workers, and the rate doubles or triples during tourist season. "It's a vicious cycle," says Nancy Taylor, case management supervisor at the Broward Outreach Center, a county-supported homeless shelter in Hollywood. "Life becomes day labor, crack, and the flophouse. A nice apartment would be cheaper, but they haven't saved enough."

Given the housing shortage, Willis and many others recovering from homelessness and addiction rely heavily on so-called "three-quarter-way houses," privately owned facilities offering cheap shared rooms and 12-step meetings. Some of the houses are well run and foster recovery, but others are riddled with substance abuse. None offers private rooms, for which homeless people yearn after lacking privacy for so long.

One of the places where Willis stayed last year was Valentino in Love, just off Federal Highway at SE 22nd Street in Fort Lauderdale, which he says falls somewhere in the middle in terms of quality. He complains that the manager pressured him into day labor so he could pay off the small amount he owed for rent. He left in a snit.

But a Friday night at Valentino's with owner Rudy Valentino Vittorio and manager Kevin Rice shows just how tough it is to work with recovering addicts like Willis. That's the night when residents with regular jobs receive their paychecks, and the liquor stores and drug dealers beckon. Vittorio and Rice stay up until the early hours of the morning watching over them. "They get off the bus after work, see a beer joint, and they're off to the races again," Rice says. "But you can't give up on them. Relapse is part of recovery."

In the courtyard between the two apartment wings, seven men and three women sit in a circle and recite the universal 12-step pledge. Inside, Vittorio and Rice hand out $20 bills to several residents who need help buying groceries and discuss what to do about two men who haven't returned yet. Residents are booted out if they miss the 10 p.m. curfew or any of the three required meetings a week without a good excuse. They're also evicted if they come back high or are found with alcohol or drugs on the premises.

Vittorio charges people a $200 security deposit and $100 a week rent. But his account book indicates that most residents are far behind on their rents. He doesn't expect to collect. "Rudy is losing his shirt here," says Rice, who works as an accountant during the day.

Like most of the people who run three-quarter-way houses, Vittorio is a recovering addict himself. A swarthy man with a crooked grin, he looks like a Mafia soldier on a Caribbean vacation -- greased-back black hair, black Bermuda shorts, Italian loafers with no socks, heavy gold chain around his neck. That's in fact what he was from his teens on: a Mob drug runner from a family of wise guys. But eight years ago, he wound up broke and living in a Miami crack house. When he finally decided to sober up, he couldn't find a halfway house that would take him because he didn't have $100. "I swore if I made it through that, I'd help others in the same situation."

After two years of sobriety, he was making good money in the remodeling and roofing business. He paid $250,000 to the federal government for a foreclosed motel property and opened Valentino in Love. He made a lot of mistakes at first. He used to invite people from Tent City to enter his program. But they quickly dropped out, and he learned how to size up whether someone were serious about recovery. He used to take people back into the program after repeated failures, but now he gives people only one second chance.

He's not sure he can afford to keep Valentino in Love open much longer, though he clearly loves it. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he says. "I take it day by day."

Afraid that he won't be able to stay sober himself, Mike Jefferson, after two nights at Dean's Place, accepts a referral to the county's 28-day Intensive Residential Treatment program in Coral Springs, which focuses on relapse prevention. The 100-bed center, where Ray Willis has also received therapy, is the only treatment facility in Broward County that's open to people who lack health insurance and can't afford to pay privately. "It's a pretty good program," says Willis, who remembers that, with life-skills classes, aerobics, and movies, "it didn't get boring by just focusing on drugs, drugs, drugs."

 

But the center usually has a weeklong waiting list. Treatment facilities throughout Florida have been squeezed by state budget cuts. During the '90s, while waging its "war on drugs," the state slashed funding for alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment for adults without children, from $36.3 million in fiscal year 1991 to $23.3 million this year. (Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed to apply more federal funds to drug treatment.) Ken DeCerchio, assistant secretary for substance abuse in the state Department of Children and Families, laments that Florida meets only about 16 percent of the treatment needs for adults, and there's a waiting list of 800 people statewide. "Many people won't wait for services very long because they're having a hard time staying clean and sober," he says. "They'll go out and start using."

Even 28 days in residential treatment might not be long enough for Jefferson, who's 35 years old but looks older. He notices each neon beer sign he passes, and frets about being too far away from his favorite package store, in case he "feels like a little taste."

Growing up in Harlem, he started drinking as a 12-year-old when his alcoholic mother served him and his siblings malt liquor. He thinks she did that as another way to abuse him after he grew too big for her to beat up. When he was age 17, he began working on and off as a janitor and took periodic "vacations" to Reno, where he mugged tipsy patrons coming out of casinos. His only family now is his girlfriend and three-year-old son in Orlando, from whom he stays away when he's drinking because he doesn't want them to see him on the skids. He suffers from flashbacks and nightmares about the violence he's seen.

The Coral Springs facility doesn't even try to address psychological problems like Jefferson's during the one-month program, because raising childhood trauma issues when a person is struggling for sobriety often triggers a relapse, says Marianne Lawless, the nursing director. "The research shows that we do need a longer program -- three to six months," she says. "But we just don't have the funding."

Jefferson isn't sure he wants a longer program to analyze his psyche. "I can't figure out why I drink," he says. "I just want to stop drinking."

Willis, further along in recovery than Jefferson, goes a different route. He is sent to the new jewel of the county's system, the Homeless Assistance Center at Sunrise and NW Seventh Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, which, he proudly points out, he helped build on a previous construction job. An attractive two-story building with beige stucco walls and pastel accents, the center was built after a five-year battle over where to locate it. No neighborhood wanted the center in its back yard, fearing another Tent City and an influx of crime and undesirables.

The county finally bought the site of a former paint shop in an industrial area for $2 million, anted up another $4.4 million in grants and loans for construction, and contracted with the business-backed Broward Partnership For the Homeless, a nonprofit group, to run the new shelter. It might as well be county-run, though, since taxpayers will fund $1.7 million of the shelter's $2.4 million operating budget this year, according to county commission auditor Norman Thabit. The nonprofit agency, which hasn't repaid any of the county's $2.4 million loan, now wants the county to turn the loan into an outright grant because public and private fundraising efforts have been slower than projected.

Everything at the shelter, including naming the dorms "sleeping rooms," is designed to discourage residents from thinking of the HAC as home and getting too comfortable, says Ezra Krieg, the center's resource-development director. "There are no days off," stresses Krieg, who tends to lecture like a know-it-all uncle. "If you've got time off, you should be utilizing it to get your act together."

While Willis finds the facility a much nicer place physically than shelters where he's previously stayed, he chafes at rules that seem to reflect hostility toward the homeless. Residents are required to leave the dorms at 9 a.m., even on days off from their jobs. (Shelter officials are reconsidering this.) They cannot reenter the dorms or lounges until 4 p.m., and if they remain on campus, they must stay outside in the courtyard, where they cannot receive visitors. Residents may be refused admittance and have to find another place to sleep if they don't return by 8 p.m.

 

The rules sometimes get in the way of a return to normal lives. Residents can't accept jobs or overtime that requires them to return later than curfew. There is no reliable system for transmitting messages or announcing visitors, and in one case, a resident almost missed out on a job offer as a result. Those who start work or school early in the morning and come back in early afternoon can't go inside to rest, read, or do paperwork. "That's OK, though," Willis says, "it's more incentive for me to get a job and get out of here."

The jail-like rules don't apply just to residents. Krieg accused a New Times reporter, who was interviewing two willing residents in the HAC parking lot outside the security gate, of trespassing on private property. Legally speaking, Krieg is correct; the grounds are considered private. But his position didn't go over well with Broward County commissioner Lori Parrish. "Krieg is mistaken," she said. "That is public property owned by the county. If clients want to talk to you, that should be their right. It seems like [shelter officials] are overly paranoid."

On the plus side, Ray and other residents praise the caseworkers at the shelter, who help them develop 60-day plans for employment, education, housing, and health care. But they complain that the staff has little to offer in the way of job training and placement. Krieg explains the situation by saying that the shelter needs more donations from the public and more program help from other agencies.

Most disturbing, a significant percentage of residents has been discharged for breaking rules or using alcohol or drugs or has voluntarily returned to the streets before their 90-day limit is up. Half a dozen people who were kicked out of the center now sleep behind a gas station one block away. Steve Kever, a resident who works closely with the homeless coalition, argues that political pressure to clear out Tent City resulted in shelter officials accepting hard-core homeless and addicted people who weren't serious about recovery and couldn't hack the rules. As evidence, just a handful of 140 current residents attend the nightly 12-step meetings at the center, Willis says.

Today Krieg says he has not compiled aggregate statistics on turnover at the shelter, but Kever estimates a 25 to 50 percent turnover in the first month. Since Tent City closed in mid-February, Fort Lauderdale police have reported an increase in the number of homeless people sleeping in parks, on beaches, in church stairwells, and along the riverfront, though statistics are not available.

Kever and other observers believe that, aside from the HAC, the county needs another facility to give people a safe, easily accessible place to sleep, eat, and bathe -- the wet shelter so dreaded by politicians. "It's taken me 30 years to quit drugs and get off the street," said Kever, age 60, a full-time university student and aspiring poet. "These guys won't turn around in 30 to 90 days."

Harold Dom, social services director at the Salvation Army emergency shelter (which is not affiliated with the Salvation Army work program), agrees. "We need a safe haven, maybe not Tent City, that houses people no matter what state they're in, without so many rules," he says. "Many addicts are afraid of programs, and we have to reach them with the spirit of wanting to change their lives." Dom also urges the county to establish a larger street outreach program to locate the homeless and gain their trust.

Meanwhile the police face a dilemma. Because of a Miami federal court ruling -- as well as a policy proposed by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department -- officers cannot arrest homeless people for misdemeanors related to essential life activities, such as sleeping or urinating in public places, unless emergency-shelter beds are available. If those beds aren't available (workers at the emergency-shelter hotline, 954-524-BEDS, say all beds are usually snapped up by 10 a.m. every day), or if a facility won't accept a person (the HAC will not admit someone who's intoxicated), the police cannot enforce the public-places rules.

The draft policy encourages officers to use alternatives to arrest. But Capt. Dave Geyer, day-shift commander for the downtown district, acknowledges that there really is no alternative. In fact, half a dozen people now sleep in an empty lot across from police headquarters.

"Nobody is leveling with the public," Kever says. "People think we've got a new 200-bed shelter and that's the end of the struggle. That's not even the start."

Despite Willis' repeated relapses, his mother still buys him shoes and bus passes and holds out hope that he'll clean up like his brother, who quit heroin cold turkey. But she won't take him back home. "There's nothing I can possibly do for him anymore," she says. "Now he's got to do it on his own."

 

Still, she thinks often about her friend's daughter, a homeless woman who was murdered a year ago, and gets frightened if Willis doesn't call every few days. "It could have been [Ray]," she says. "I pray that nothing happens to him."

Less than a week after entering the new shelter, Willis took the Tri-Rail to Miami Beach on his day off and drank six daiquiris while trying, unsuccessfully, to pick up a woman at a beach bar. He managed to get back into the shelter that night without detection. But he felt guilty afterward and talked about his "little relapse" at his next 12-step meeting. "I won't do it again anytime soon," he vowed.

Mike Jefferson, after entering the Intensive Residential Treatment program, did not respond to attempts to contact him, and the staff would not confirm or deny that he was still there, because of confidentiality rules. When Willis is asked whether he thinks his friend will achieve sobriety this time, he shakes his head. "He likes drinking too much," he says. "He still talks about the good times."

Asked how he would rate his own odds for successful recovery, Willis thinks for a moment and looks away. "It varies, but today I feel it's 70 percent," he says.

Only 70 percent?
"To me, today, that feels like a lot."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: Harris_Meyer@newtimesbpb.com


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