Protesters stage vigil for housing

Dani McClain
Sept. 20, 2006

Miami Herald

They awoke before dawn Tuesday to construct a ''tent city'' on a corner of the lawn at County Hall. They stayed outdoors in the late afternoon heat and into the rainy evening.

''Sleeping out here isn't much worse than the conditions a lot of people are used to here without any affordable housing,'' said Tony Romano, spokesman for the Miami Workers Center, a group advocating for families displaced by Miami-Dade County's affordable housing crisis.

Many such families stayed at the building anticipating today's county budget hearing. Most feel the $15 million earmarked by the county to repair public housing units isn't enough to do the job.

''If they don't act on this crisis, the blood of the people is on their hands,'' said Caprice Brown, a mother of three who has lived with family members since she was forced out of Liberty City's Scott/Carver Homes in 2004.

Brown was one of 100 members of the Countywide Coalition for Housing Emergency Relief who gathered Tuesday to demand that commissioners earmark $200 million for low-income housing -- for both rental assistance and the construction of new units.

The same group filled county chambers during a budget hearing earlier this month and waved dollar bills in the air in an effort to get commissioners' attention.

The coalition is calling for 10 times more than what the county manager has proposed to ease the shortage.

Most of the $15 million County Manager George Burgess has said he will direct to affordable housing will be used to repair rundown public housing.

''The current budget has no funds for any new affordable housing units,'' said Sushma Sheth, a spokeswoman with the Miami Workers Center. ``Anything they have put in is for fixing existing units.''

The several hundred units slated for repair cannot meet the needs of the more than 40,000 on the Miami-Dade Housing Agency's waiting list, Sheth said.

As county employees left the Stephen P. Clarke Building Tuesday afternoon, they passed the coalition members, all dressed in bright T-shirts advertising their respective organizations, including Power U, Haitian Women of Miami and People Acting for Community Together.

Two-dimensional cardboard houses were stuck in the lawn like tombstones. On them, the children of displaced families had painted colorful messages such as, ''We won't be pushed out!'' and, ``Four people in a room. Thanks!''

With their chairs pulled in a circle, the displaced vigil-keepers shared their stories.

Cheryl Williams spoke of losing her six children to foster care after she was unable to pay the rent on her Northwest 67th Street apartment.

Gissela Ochoa, a janitor at Jackson Memorial Hospital, said she participated in the strike at the University of Miami earlier this year but said her pay increase was offset by a $100 rent increase.

But coalition members said some affordable housing already exists for families in need.

'All around the Pork 'n' Beans there are houses boarded up,'' said Jeraldine Johnson, a member of the Miami Workers Center who has spent the last 50 years in the Liberty Square housing project. She said two- and three-bedroom units around her home have been vacant for more than a year.

''It used to be when someone moved out, maintenance was in the next day,'' Johnson said.

Even when rain began to fall Tuesday evening, dozens stayed in the tent city. They held candles and sang We Shall Overcome. About 75 people stayed overnight, resting in sleeping bags and air mattresses beneath the tents.

''We're fed up, but that only makes our commitment higher,'' Romano said.

Yvette Morton, a former Scott/Carver Homes resident who was displaced in 2001, planned to stay the night even though she was feeling the effects of a cold.

''I didn't bring any medicine, but I felt like coming out here was what I had to do,'' she said while preparing her sleeping area under a tent. ``I'm one of the lucky ones -- I have an air mattress.''

Miami Herald staff writer Evan Benn contributed to this report.