Col. Ralph Abra Vaya stood in the middle of 18th Avenue a block north of Sunrise Boulevard and ignored the beaded sweat that dropped from the tip of his 80-year-old nose to his scarred sternum, the mark of open-heart surgery. The old man announced he was going to die.
"Tell my son," he commanded Fred Scarborough, a self-described Christian do-gooder and veterinarian. "Tell him I don't want to die here. I had this surgery" -- he tapped the scar -- "I have two cancers. I won't last another year, and I want out. So why don't you just pay the commission cost and close the deal?"
The deal, a rambling motel Scarborough aims to buy, stretches along both sides of the narrow Fort Lauderdale avenue that dead-ends into Sunrise Boulevard -- 10 buildings freshly painted, with two pools and 45 units for rent by the day, week, or month.
Never mind that hotel owner Ralph Abra Vaya, Jr., the colonel's son, wants to back out of the agreed-upon sale price, $1.39 million. Never mind the powerful residential opposition of the Lake Ridge Neighborhood Association and a city commissioner, Tim Smith, who champions the association's effort to maintain property values at any cost. And never mind that many gays in the association fear a conservative Christian neighbor such as Scarborough could pose an unwanted challenge to their lifestyles, according to association president Bill Rettinger.
Never mind all that, or city zoning laws that would require Scarborough to get special permission to manage the property as he intends.
When Scarborough eyes the tidy cottages dressed festively in tailored plumes of gladioli he sees not trouble but a potential jewel in the crown of his cause -- Shepherd's Way Ministry, a part of the United Methodist Church of Christ.
Scarborough's fever is compassion and his mandate, he says, no more than the traditional Christian marching orders: in this case to house and rescue homeless mothers and their children using the 18th Avenue motel. "We'll just keep it as a motel," he says. "Shepherd's Way spent $80,000 last year renting rooms at motels, and we want a little more say in how a motel is run, with night security, clean services, and whatnot."
"Whatnot" means a healthy dose of religion. Without a Bible-based boost that includes food, a roof, a forced savings plan, and day care, Scarborough believes, mothers escaping homelessness may lack the tenacity to drag themselves off the streets and out of insolvency or squalor.
On 18th Avenue they would find themselves located conveniently near service jobs and transportation along Sunrise -- a necessity if they want to stay in Shepherd's Way. Women using Scarborough's hand up must meet several demands. Each mother must forgo alcohol and drugs, and she must work at least 35 hours a week. She must turn over each weekly paycheck to Scarborough until she has saved $2000 or decides she is ready for independent living. Recipients must also attend church, two Bible classes, and a counseling session for mothers, a total of four meetings a week. Overnight male visitors are not allowed.
When a mother is ready to step out on her own, Scarborough finds her an apartment, often subsidized by government rent programs, and furnishes it for her. Then he keeps track of the family.
That mission doesn't bode well for the colonel's escape plan from the 18th Avenue motel, which he helps manage for his son. While three tattooed women and two emaciated men, also tattooed, watch the conversation from the cool shadows of their hotel doorways, Scarborough quietly draws the line: He will not buy the colonel's escape by paying Ralph Jr. an extra $80,000 to cover the cost of a realtor's commission.
"I'm sorry, the judge is going to have to handle it, sir," he adds, shrugging apologetically.
Instead he intends to persist, Scarborough says, first through the legal dispute with Ralph Jr. and then through the real fight with the Lake Ridge Neighborhood Association and Commissioner Smith.
Arguably the most powerful and well-organized association in the city, early this year Lake Ridge manipulated the wheels of city government to create dead-end barriers along 14 streets that once spilled into Sunrise, an unprecedented effort for a small group of residents. And they don't want Scarborough any more than they didn't want prostitutes and drug pushers who, they claimed, used to wander into their streets from Sunrise Boulevard, says Rettinger, president of the association.
He characterized Lake Ridge as a mix of "young families, old families, gays, straights -- I would say a good portion is lived in by gays. We've put a lot of money into our property, and we don't want to see it degraded."
Scarborough's plan would do that, in his eyes. "They want to buy the motel and use it for transitional housing, but it ain't zoned for that," Rettinger says. "It's not that we don't want these people, but this area, the Northeast, has always been a dumping ground. We got the homeless shelter, the Salvation Army, all this stuff."
Scarborough's religion also worries Rettinger, he acknowledges. The reason: Some Lake Ridge residents fear harassment of gays by conservative Christians. Especially on 18th Avenue, where gay investors have plans of their own that could force them to live cheek by jowl with the Christians. "It's an extreme concern, it's one of the problems," Rettinger says. "Right there next to that hotel, some people want to turn the Garden Villa hotel into a gay resort."
Until recently Rettinger thought the problem was only theoretical anyway. Then he discovered it wasn't. "Shepherd's Way promised us they'd backed out, but they haven't. It's so wonderful to have Christians look at you and smile and shake your hand and lie to you."
So Rettinger, his voice turned to anger, promises to throw up fierce opposition. "They fuck with us, and I get mad," he says. "They ain't gonna do it. We'll put fucking 400 people marching around their door if they try."
Some residents shy away from the notion that reverse discrimination is taking place in Lake Ridge -- that gays are discriminating against Scarborough's religion. "I don't see the [gay-Christian] conflict as an issue," says Craig Jordan, who lives with his wife a block north of Sunrise. Both are lawyers and Christians. But Jordan remains adamant that Shepherd's Way belongs somewhere else. "I could never say that I oppose what they're doing. But we don't want them doing it here."
Scarborough -- gently -- pastes a discrimination label on Lake Ridge, whether its residents voice economic or religious concerns. "I don't care what gay people do, they're welcome in our church anytime," he says. "But I've always been concerned about that kind of discrimination. Maybe it's on race, or maybe [it's] economic or religious, but that's wrong. So are they saying that, if [the homeless families] are poor or having trouble, they can't live here? You only allow some but not other people to be your neighbors?"
Commissioner Tim Smith says the answer to that is yes, but not because he doesn't support Scarborough's work or because he's discriminating.
By necessity Smith has studied Shepherd's Way Ministry firsthand. He lives across the street from a three-year-old Shepherd's Way shelter on Dixie Highway, where mothers and children often mingle on the green lawn facing Smith's Middle River neighborhood.
Before Scarborough moved in and cleaned up the site, it was tagged "the zoo" by cops and locals, a reference to the crime that occurred on the premises. Now it's clean and trouble-free, admits Smith. "No, they've never caused any problems in my neighborhood," he says. "But that's not the issue. The issue is we're trying to build communities, and you can't be inundated with the needy. Fred's a wonderful guy, and he's doing wonderful work. But you can't do it all over the place."
Faced with the charge that Shepherd's Way is just another social service agency, Scarborough points to the ledger, where taxpayer money has never appeared. "We aren't a social service agency, we haven't taken one [government] dollar," he says.
"I know he says he's not a social service agency, but call a duck a chicken," counters Smith.
Social service agency or chicken, Scarborough's deal is good for taxpayers, who get to avoid the $50 to $80 daily public cost, per person, to shelter the homeless. And it's good for homeless families who now face "a state of emergency" when they try to find beds, says Laura Carey, executive director of the Broward Coalition For the Homeless. In October, for example, 59 families sought shelter but only four found it through the coalition -- all of those at Shepherd's Way. "He's done wonderful things," Carey says, noting that only 31 units exist in the county for homeless families, and 11 of them are already Scarborough's.
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"I can understand why the neighborhoods are concerned, they're concerned about crime," Carey explains. "But families are not a threat. And I don't think the fact that Fred is faith-based hurts anything. Faith is very helpful to people -- not to everybody but to some people -- in overcoming homelessness."
Fewer than 30 families per 100 have fallen back into homelessness a year after completing Scarborough's program, his records show, by far the best success rate in Broward County. "Fred genuinely loves and cares about these people," Carey says. "That can make a huge difference in their self-esteem, their sense of dignity, and their will to live."
Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address: