Gimme Shelter

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.

Critics of the BOC's director, Dr. Allen Reesor, fear that his approach, if applied to the North HAC, will stymie the efforts of outreach workers, thus getting fewer homeless people off the streets. They worry that Reesor's close philosophical and personal ties to the county's homelessness czar, G. Steven Werthman, administrator of the Homeless Initiative Partnership for Broward County, will veer the North HAC away from pure emergency care and more toward long-term stays. Indeed, some question whether that relationship and others -- Reesor's son-in-law works as Werthman's assistant -- helped him land the contract to run the North HAC in the first place. Reesor dismisses such criticisms, describing himself as "the little guy" in the shelter system. His success comes not from favoritism, he claims, but from gaining the trust of county officials and other agencies through his cooperative attitude and a solid track record of helping the homeless.

Broward County has come a long way during the past five years in taking care of its homeless population. For much of the 1990s, many of the county's homeless lived in a makeshift temporary shelter nicknamed Tent City located across Andrews Avenue from Fort Lauderdale City Hall. The highly visible squalor of the encampment spurred the creation of a number of public and private groups dedicated to providing the homeless with options more humane than living under a tarpaulin.

In 1994, the Broward County Commission created the Homeless Initiative Partnership (HIP) Advisory Board, which is intended to craft public policy toward the homeless. The board identified the need for three assistance centers in the county. The board works closely with the HIP administrator, a $75,000-a-year county position established in 1997 in charge of overseeing funding for homeless-related programs. The administrator reports to the director of the Human Services Department.

Numerous sites for a permanent shelter were considered during the early 1990s, but "not in my back yard" resistance by businesses, county commissioners, and neighborhoods delayed progress for years. The Broward Partnership for the Homeless was founded in 1997 by business and civic leaders specifically to build and operate such a shelter. By early 1999, that facility, the Central Homeless Assistance Center, had been built; many of its occupants moved there from Tent City, which was then razed. The Central HAC takes in about 1800 people a year and gets roughly $2.2 million of its $5 million annual operating budget from the county.

Broward Outreach Center opened at 2056 Scott St. in Hollywood in March 1997. The 90-bed shelter's current annual budget is $1.4 million, $950,000 of which comes from the county. Werthman, a psychology major who graduated from Florida International University in 1982, was its first director. Werthman had been director of a Salvation Army family shelter in Hollywood previous to joining Miami Rescue Mission in 1994. Now 43 years old, Werthman left BOC to become a county employee in September 1997, when he was hired as the first Homeless Initiative Partnership administrator.

While the Central HAC and BOC are the direct recipients of county largesse intended to alleviate homelessness, the system relies heavily on Sean Cononie's Helping People in America. Cononie receives no county funding, relying instead on street sales of the Homeless Voice newspaper. Helping People formed almost accidentally in late 1997, when Cononie assisted several homeless people by helping them pay for a motel room. That single act mushroomed into a makeshift motel-cum-shelter that today houses about 190 people at any given time. The City of Hollywood has steadfastly maintained that the site at 2707 Lincoln St. is not zoned for a homeless shelter and has pushed for Cononie to relocate. Davie officials last year turned down Cononie's request to open a shelter there. In late February, Cononie dropped his quest to open a homeless "motel" in Fort Lauderdale after he met a wall of resistance. Days later, he announced he'd bought a hotel in Hollywood with the same plan in mind. City officials there are already circling the wagons.

Keeping an eye on all these providers is the Broward Coalition for the Homeless. Founded in 1989, the coalition is an advocacy group whose 26-member board and seven employees see that the needs of homeless people aren't forgotten by busy bureaucrats, overlooked by the continuum of service providers, or ignored by elected officials. It also works toward long-term solutions to prevent homelessness, such as adequate affordable housing. One of the watchdog group's most important roles is operating 524-BEDS, a hotline for referrals to the county's homeless shelters. The Russell/Courtney outreach team has an office at the coalition, where Courtney is a paid employee.  

The coalition's board is composed of clergy, civic leaders, homelessness activists, and representatives from providers such as BOC, the Central HAC, Salvation Army, Helping People, and the Homeless Initiative Partnership. Board membership by providers, however, is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, those who are hip-deep in work with the homeless know how best to tweak the system. However, the board can become bogged down in the special interests of its members. Two board members, Steve Werthman and Allen Reesor, have had especially strong influence over the coalition -- indeed, over Broward's homeless system as a whole.

Reesor, an ordained minister who is more comfortable in front of a classroom than behind a pulpit, began working as a case management supervisor in February 1997 at the Broward Outreach Center. When Werthman resigned as the center's director in September 1997 to become the HIP administrator, Reesor assumed the director's position at BOC. On Werthman's recommendation, the county hired as his assistant Robert Gregg, Reesor's son-in-law and a former volunteer at the BOC. Gregg is now the special-projects coordinator in the HIP office, a $39,000-a-year job.

Reesor and Werthman are board members of the Broward Coalition for the Homeless. Reesor was board chairman from 1998 through 1999. Two years ago, the coalition hired Reesor's daughter, Melissa Reesor, as program coordinator and later hired her fiancé, Robin Martin, for the newly created position of business manager. The two have since married.

Laura Carey, the coalition's executive director, says the elder Reesor was not involved in the appointments. "When Allen was president, I worked closely with him, close enough that I got to know members of his family," Carey explains. "I was introduced to his daughter, Melissa, and she seemed quite competent, so I interviewed her. We, as a coalition, decided to hire her." Martin would help out at the office sometimes and was eventually given a temporary assignment. "He did such a good job that we hired him on full time," Carey says. Asked if any conflicts had arisen from the arrangement, Carey avoided a direct answer. "I would say that what I perceive as a problem is that we have service providers on our board. That can affect our ability to advocate. I don't know if it has or not, but it could potentially."

In the case of Allen Reesor, the potential for problems is readily apparent: Reesor has friends and family in two of the most important agencies in the homeless-services domain. He has close ties to Werthman, who oversees the government office that doles out contracts and grants to Reesor's program. Further, he has family members working at the one independent body that monitors how those contracts and grants are awarded.

Some say that's no accident. "Allen always wants to be in control. He's got a Napoleon complex," says Susan Glancy, previously an attorney with the Broward Legal Aid Society's Homeless Legal Rights Project.

Glancy says she worries not only about the influence Reesor wields but what he plans to do with that influence. While Glancy praises BOC's program, she believes it does not provide the emergency beds for which the county funding is intended. "I think they do an excellent job with certain clientele," she says of BOC. "The issue becomes: Should they be getting their money as an emergency shelter if in fact they're not taking people on an emergency basis?"

One longtime Broward homeless advocate, who asked for anonymity, explains the conflict this way: "Right now, I see a hindrance to [getting homeless off the street] in that the county has given an organization money to operate emergency shelter beds, and they're very hard [for homeless people] to access because the criteria is to stay eight months in the program. It doesn't leave any vacancies. It doesn't make for turnover. Take someone to the Central HAC who screwed up their Social Security disability check that month and 60 days later they have them in transitional, and it's a success. In the South HAC, they'd keep him for eight months because that's their program." That, the advocate says, has led the system to rely on Cononie's Helping People shelter -- which doesn't even receive public funds.

"[Reesor] should not be getting funding for emergency beds," Cononie declares. "We really are the South HAC. We're always going to be around because we take the ones that won't comply, can't comply, who get discharged from other programs, who can't get into this or that program. We're a true emergency safe-haven shelter. We have become the Tent City. We've become Broward County's disgrace."  

The anonymous homeless advocate agrees and is also skeptical about BOC's receiving about $1 million each year from the county for emergency beds that are rarely available. "Steve [Werthman] started that program; Allen [Reesor is] making a success out of it. It's protecting turf," declares the advocate. "They have a program that they think works, and when a grant comes around, they access it. And if a grant comes around for emergency beds, they say, "Yeah, we're emergency,' because they know it will help their whole program."

"We definitely don't have enough emergency beds for the people who call for placement," says Carey, the coalition's director, while adding that the county also lacks enough transitional beds and affordable housing.

Allen Reesor's first-floor office at the Broward Outreach Center overlooks a desolate stretch of railroad tracks beside Dixie Highway in a neighborhood of featureless warehouses and light industry. It's the kind of NIMBY-land where many homeless shelters end up being built: as far away from single-family homes as possible. Reesor has a thin, shy smile, grayish hair, and a short-cropped beard. He responds calmly to criticisms leveled at him and BOC, saying he welcomes the chance to reply. He has a didactic, soft-spoken manner developed over the years as a pastor and educator. He spent five years in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as director of education at Eglise de Dieu and another six years in the 1990s as associate pastor in charge of education at Miramar Church of God.

"Our goal in reducing homelessness is to help as many people as possible to return to the community as fully functioning members of that community," Reesor states. "Some of that comes from my perception that homeless people are marginalized. Reinventing them is my goal. Some will get disability and subsidized housing. Some will get back into jobs and reintegrate with their families."

At BOC, that goal is aided in no small part by exposure to the spirituality of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions, though proselytizing is not allowed. "We require 12-step programs. In some ways, I consider a 12-step program to be addressing spirituality. There's some validity in choosing a higher power."

Clients coming to the shelter typically have a weeklong orientation to decide whether they'll "buy into the program," Reesor explains. Then, during a stabilization period of roughly eight weeks, clients take life-skills classes, attend 12-step programs, and undergo testing for substance abuse and alcohol addiction. The final treatment stage of the program is a work skills assessment during which they are assigned jobs around the shelter and receive feedback from the staff. Clients are usually ready to get an outside job within three to five months, Reesor says. They can then remain in the transitional program for a total stay of up to eight months. An average of 26 beds become available each month, a "relatively low turnover," Reesor admits.

Reesor says he understands how the program could be perceived as inflexible. "We're modeled after a reality therapy program," he explains. "The reason for failure -- and homelessness is a failure on some level -- is that people make decisions at varying levels of responsibility. You start out here very structured; the final level is very unstructured. For many people, that's what they need -- to not make a decision. Kids find security in not having to make a choice. A lot of the people here have been beat up, and not having to decide can be therapeutic. I went to boarding school for high school, and it could be frustrating at times. On the other hand, it instilled some disciplines in me that have since made me a better person. Yes, there's a group of people who think they don't need help in their decision-making. But we say, if you make the same decisions you made last month, what are you going to get? Same thing you got last month. If that's not what you want, you'll have to make different decisions."

BOC doesn't avoid taking in homeless people with the most serious problems, Reesor points out. "Between 80 to 85 percent of our clients have significant histories of substance abuse and alcoholism," he says. "Sixty percent of our residents have psychiatric problems. We don't exclude anyone here. If they can't get in, it's because we're full. Or if someone's been here and they have received services, they're not allowed back for 30 days. We've had people threaten to kill me and were discharged for bad behavior, and they're not precluded from coming back at some point.  

"I'd love to have the flexibility [Cononie] does so that it wouldn't matter how many people want to come in, we're going to take them all," Reesor asserts. "But I operate under an ordinance that says I can only have 90 people living here at one time. Sean doesn't operate under that ordinance. He takes everyone. That's his choice. He's operating without an ordinance, and that's why the city is upset with him. We have to have an operational license, and the city and county monitor us.

"My goal is that if I wouldn't want it happening next door to my house, then I don't think I should do it," he says. "We've never had the same complaints from the neighbors in this area. Sean feels that he should be able to do what he wants to do regardless of what the neighbors say. I'm not saying he's wrong. I don't like conflict, and I'm going to do what I can so there isn't conflict. Sean likes conflict. Some days, I think he goes out looking for it."

As for the suggestion that he holds an unfair advantage because Werthman and his son-in-law work in the HIP administration, Reesor disagrees. "Whether I had known Steve [Werthman] before or not, I'm an easy guy to work with," he explains. "It wouldn't matter who was there. If I go to the county and say, "What do you want me to do so that this can work better?' they'll tell me," he explains. "If I argue with them about something that's not in my contract, they'll be hesitant."

In July 2000, the Homeless Initiative Partnership Administration began soliciting proposals from agencies interested in operating the North HAC, to be built at 1700 N. Blount Rd. in Pompano Beach. A five-member review panel was chosen by the HIP Advisory Board's executive committee. Its members included Pompano Beach Mayor William Griffin and County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, the latter of whom had been a volunteer life-skills teacher at BOC two years before. The panel evaluated proposals by Broward Outreach Center and Broward Partnership for the Homeless, the only agencies deemed to have met the county's requisites. The latter, which operated 200 emergency beds at the Central HAC, would have seemed an ideal fit for managing 200 similar beds in Pompano Beach. In addition, BOC's proposal estimated the North HAC's first two years of operating expenses at $4,143,000 -- about $300,000 higher than its competitor's estimate. But in September 2000, the review committee unanimously recommended that Broward Outreach Center operate the facility. The County Commission, in turn, unanimously awarded the contract to BOC.

Says Christine Teel, one of the review committee members: "I can tell you that at the time, some people, myself included, thought the Partnership for the Homeless had its plate full with the Sunrise Boulevard shelter, which had just opened. There was a lot going on there getting that up and running." Indeed, Teel, president of the Sunrise Intracoastal Homeowners Association, had certainly made her opinion publicly known after authoring an op-ed piece the previous year in the Sun-Sentinel blasting the partnership's management of the Central HAC.

Susan Glancy, who was with Legal Aid's Homeless Project at the time, recalls not being surprised with the final selection. "It was really a kind of slam dunk," she says. "When you have Steve [Werthman] and Rob [Gregg] calling the shots and orchestrating it, you have such a connection. Of course it's going to go to [BOC]."

Indeed, Robert Gregg, Reesor's son-in-law, was responsible for "creating and managing the process for the County North Homeless Assistance Center selection and agreement," according to a bonus recommendation on file in Gregg's county personnel record.

"Any time we have dealings with the BOC, it raises the specter of conflict," Gregg admits. "Steve is especially sensitive to that.

"I don't see how I could have influenced the selection," Gregg adds. "You had a county commissioner and the mayor of Pompano Beach on the committee."

Werthman says that Gregg's work on the project "was under my direct supervision and through that whole process with oversight and feedback from the department, county attorney, and county auditor." He adds: "None of us were involved in the actual vote or recommendation. Our charge was to establish a fair, competitive process. I feel we did that. There were no appeals, no objections to the process that was used."

The county's policy on conflicts of interest does not require Gregg to avoid work on projects involving his father-in-law. Rather, the policy advises employees to use the "prudent observer test," which asks, "Would a prudent outside observer think that an employee was influenced in official actions by some offer or expectation of personal gain?"  

Glancy still believes the contract went to the wrong agency. "If you look at the proposals, I think the Central HAC's was far better as an emergency shelter -- which is what we kept saying it was going to be. But it's not going to be an emergency shelter. It's going to be Broward Outreach North."

"[The Central HAC] should have gotten [the contract] because [it's] much more of an emergency shelter, and they do a much better job," Sean Cononie says.

Some service providers urged the Partnership for the Homeless to appeal the selection, but it declined to do so after considering the political fallout from such a move, according to a source close to the episode.

Asked to comment on the contract selection, Ezra Krieg, a spokesman for the Partnership for the Homeless, offers only, "We followed the rules that were dictated by this process, and we weren't awarded the contract. We have not filed any challenges to the process."

Reesor says he had not been confident that BOC's proposal would win the contract, especially in light of its higher cost. "But I think that my knowing Steve had nothing to do with the final decision," he asserts, adding that he doesn't have the political connections that board members of the Partnership for the Homeless have. "They have some very high-powered and important people on their board." For example, he points to William Keith of Keith & Associates Engineering in Pompano Beach, the former board chairman who was named citizen of the year by the Fort Lauderdale City Commission last year. "I don't have any of those important people on my board," Reesor says. "I kind of still see myself as the little guy. I just felt that if it came down to an influence issue, I didn't have a chance."

He believes the review committee preferred his "collaborative model" in which he plans to subcontract with on-site providers, totaling about $800,000 a year. While the Homeless Partnership's proposal relied more on in-house services by its employees and referrals to outside agencies, Reesor's plan proposed actual contracts with some of those agencies to work at the North HAC. "It brings all the players on one site and makes sure that we're coordinating access to resources," Reesor explains.

Teel's support of Reesor has been unflagging. "He's wonderful, very straightforward," she says. "He doesn't spin a bunch of malarkey." And she dismisses criticism that the North HAC will mimic BOC. "It's going to be operated differently," she asserts. "Just because they do one thing in the south doesn't necessarily mean they'll do the same in the north."

Reesor is just now beginning the search for department heads for the North HAC, which will begin operation in July or August. He will split his time as director of it and BOC but continue to receive the same annual salary of $55,000, he says. Hiring "front line" staff will begin this summer, he says. The goal is to take in 275 people in the first 21 days, which would bring the shelter up to full operating capacity.

The North HAC would seem to offer more flexibility as an emergency shelter. Thirty-two beds are slated for the "tiered access" program, a 30-day, low-demand shelter for men. While intoxicated men will not be allowed in, Reesor says, this separate unit won't impose a zero drug/alcohol policy, as will be enforced in the rest of the North HAC. "It allows them 30 days to work labor pool," Reesor explains. "It will give us 32 beds for people who would say, "BOC's too tough for me.' The idea is they'll see what's happening: Two men come in the same day, one goes into tiered access, the other into treatment. At the end of 30 days, the person in the regular program is clean, sober, looking better, ready to get a job, working on an education. The guy in tiered is looking at the other guy and saying, "That could be me.' The idea is to give them incentive but also give them a soft entry."

That tiered approach is consistent with the Broward Outreach Center's self-contained program of moving along a continuum, says the longtime homeless advocate who asked not to be named. The problem he foresees, however, is that the men in the tiered program will remain in place longer than 30 days while awaiting a bed in the main shelter. He fears that will ultimately bog down the number of open emergency beds, keeping turnover as low as it has been at BOC.  

In fact, in initial meetings Reesor has held to familiarize service providers with the North HAC (including one with the Broward County Sheriff's Office, which polices Pompano Beach), the emphasis at the new facility is shifting to transitional care, the advocate claims. And with the county ready to shell out more than $2.1 million for emergency beds in the North HAC for fiscal 2002-03, the advocate points out, the county's homeless shouldn't have to wait.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >