Dunn Reports on Safe Harbor

By John Dorschner

Marvin Dunn
    Despite opposition from the county, focus groups of single mothers strongly support the concept of a "safe harbor" in public housing, reports Marvin Dunn.
    Dunn, author of several books on black history and retired Chairman of the department of psychology at Florida International University, developed the vision of Safe Harbor as "a secure, village-type community in which poor women who are raising young children alone can do so in a safe and intellectually stimulating environment.
      "The village will have a live-in staff which will include an early childhood development specialist and six hand-picked, thoroughly vetted surrogate fathers who will support about 50 mothers in raising the children. A major part of their role will be the moral development and guidance of the children."
    Financed by $50,000 in grants from the Knight Foundation and  The Children’s Trust, Dunn's staff hosted focus groups for 113 single mothers.
    In his final report, sent to county commissioners this week, Dunn reported that 88 percent of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that the Safe Harbor concept is "a good approach to some of the problems in public housing."

Rendering of possible gated Safe Harbor community.

    The underlying issue is that the poorest of neighborhoods, which include public housing, continue to have high levels of poverty, unemployment and crime despite decades of politicians vowing to improve the culture there.
    The county is currently attempting a massive rebuild of its largest public housing project, Liberty Square, but social critics wonder whether new physical housing will do anything to improve the underlying social problems.
    Poverty experts point to studies that show that the children have a much better chance of success if they live in more affluent neighborhoods, but that kind of dispersal or integration has often met with resistance in Miami-Dade, and Dunn decided to look at ways families could have a better environment without leaving Liberty City.
    His idea was that the men serving as role models could be young professionals, such as lawyers, willing to give something back to the community in return for free or reduced cost apartments.
    The concept is that they would live in a small, gated community with families led by single mothers or grandmothers with small children. "Safe Harbor will provide stand-in fathers who ... will assist the families in child rearing.  An early childhood development specialist will live in the village to help mothers raise their young children to be healthy and smart. A police officer will also live inside the village to strengthen the security of the residents.  Residents will be required to be enrolled in a job training or an educational program or be employed.  Assistance will be provided in this area."
Possible layout for a Safe Harbor community

    Dunn first envisioned that a Safe Harbor could be set as part of the rebuilt Liberty Square.
    With that in mind, he met with Michael Liu, director of Miami-Dade Public Housing, and then with Liu's staff.  "Staff members expressed several concerns including isolation of the participants in a segregated portion of the project.  Their concern was that participants would feel embarrassed by living in a section designated exclusively for single mothers.  Secondly, they expressed concern about potential conflict between surrogate fathers and biological fathers," Dunn reported.
    Last year, Miami Web News asked a panel of women at the  Miami Workers Center about the Safe Harbor concept and they were adamantly opposed. "Why do you feel that a low-income mom can't control her kids, that a man-figure has to be there?" one asked.
    County housing staff offered Dunn help in setting up a meeting with the Liberty Square Residents Council and other public housing residents to get their feedback.
    Dunn reports that Safe Harbor staffer Anjenys Eilert contacted Sara Smith, president of the Liberty Square Residents Council and was told Dunn could present his ideas at a Sept. 24 meeting of the  council.
Sara Smith

    Dunn, who has been researching and reporting about black issues and history for at least four decades, stated in his report: "Dr.  Dunn and Ms. Eilert went to the meeting on the scheduled time and date but were not admitted by Ms. Smith."
    Smith has become a lightning rod for conflicts at Liberty Square. As a member of the county committee analyzing the six bidders for the Liberty Square remake, her scoring was so one-sided in favor of one bidder that she single-handedly skewed the final result and was reported to the county attorney's office.
    Her scoring was in favor of Atlantic Pacific Communities, which is now under investigation by Liu's office concerning possible misrepresentations in its applications for public funds. The County Commission is also considering an investigation, since the company picked up the executives and assets of Carlisle Development Group, whose owner has pleaded guilty to inflating construction costs in order to get kickbacks.
    County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has yet to announce his choice for Liberty Square developer -- a decision which must then be approved by the commission.
    Eventually, the Public Housing staff informed Dunn that "the county is not interested in implementing the concept at Liberty Square or at any alternative public housing site," according to Dunn's report.
    Dunn and Eilert decided to get the opinions of focus groups, offering a $25 gift card for participation. Eight sessions were held -- five in Overtown, two in Liberty Square and one in Brownsville. About 80 percent of the attendees lived in public housing.

        82 Percent Liked Idea of Living There

     The results:
    -- 82 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "If the opportunity to live in a Safe Harbor community was available to me, I would participate."
    -- 81 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "Having substitute fathers live in the Safe Harbor community is a good idea."
    -- 11 percent agreed or strongly agreed with "Living in a Safe Harbor community would make me feel embarrassed."
    -- 87 percent liked the idea of a police officer living in the community and 89 percent liked having an early childhood specialist living there.
    Dunn's research found no models similar to Safe Harbor elsewhere in the country.
    He concluded that the next step could be a demonstration model, with public and private funding, perhaps in the Overtown area.
    If there is a next step, it would be up to the county commission.


  1. Any idea by Marvin Dunn will be (a) imaginative, (b) needed, and (c) overdue. This one, however is doomed by its very name, and he might as well save his valuable energies. "Safe Harbor"--yes, but ...safe from what, and whom? The name itself is an accusation as is easily recognized, of a menace many prefer not to acknowledge and most dare not speak in public. #

  2. It is the concept of having the holistic elements so often absent in urban communities available and planned, not the name that is important. I am not afraid to say that the vulnerable need protection from the negative elements and people in our own community. The concept is sound and should include an intergenerational strengthening component so that it mimics how it used to be when any grandmother could correct an errant child and not be disrespected.