Activists for Poor Speak Out

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Speaking up for the Poor at Liberty Square

By John Dorschner 
   Updated second time Thursday, June 25 at 12:45 p.m. 

    Worried about the poor being displaced or made second-class citizens, the Miami Workers Center is keeping a close eye on Miami-Dade's huge effort to rebuild Liberty Square.
    "These are not ghettos," says Rosalie Whiley, a past chair of the center's board who grew up in Liberty Square.
Rosalie Whiley
 "These are the hearts and souls of people's lives. Their whole life is based there. They've raised their children there."
    For more than a decade, the people of the Miami Workers Center have been leaders in battling for rights of the poor to have decent housing. Earlier this month, their efforts led to a judge removing two slumlords from the control of wretchedly run-down properties.
    "The system needs to be held accountable," says Yvonne Stratford, a board member involved in previous lengthy legal battles with the county over efforts to redo the Scott Carver housing project. "We need to watch Liberty Square carefully."

Yvonne Stratford

    Earlier this year, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced a private-public partnership costing more than $200 million to completely redo the 57-acre project. It will replace 700 rundown units built in 1937 and add more units for market-based rental, plus shops and maybe even a supermarket.
    Michael Liu, who became director of Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development last fall, said earlier this month he's determined not to repeat the county's past mistakes with Scott Carver, in which hundreds were forced out of the project on NW 22nd Avenue as the county spent a dozen years in a wretchedly mismanaged project. Only a small fraction of previous residents were able to move back into the new development.
    At Scott Carver,  "they didn't educate us as to our choices," Stratford says. Residents were sent out with vouchers for other housing, but many became lost in a bureaucratic maze. 
    Liu said his staff has a completely different plan this time, which will redevelop Liberty Square in phases, so that no one now there will be without housing.

       Liberty Square has had severe social problems for decades. Unemployment is almost 50 percent. It was near the center of the 1980 riots, which ended with federal, state, and local leaders vowing to improve conditions there -- vows that led to very little change. Almost half of those over 15 -- 47.4 percent -- remain mired in poverty, according to the latest Census data.
     Some social theorists say government's grouping of low-income families in the same place tends to perpetuate poverty and social dysfunction. Liu said earlier this month that the Liberty Square redo is not being called a public housing project, but a mixed use that will include families of various income levels to such clusters of poverty. 
    To Whiley, mixed use indicates "the developer is going to control it," meaning the government will be out of the picture. 
    Adrian Madriz, a community organizer with Miami Workers Center, says mixed income generally means "developers are looking for ways to make lots of money ... where they can make the most out of the density. They're not doing that in the service of the people who live there -- they're doing get the most out of their bottom line."
Adrian Madriz

    For Madriz, mixed income is a code for "gentrification" -- upscaling an area in which either the poor are left out or are treated as second-class citizens.
    "In the case of Liberty Square, the reason conditions are so poor there  is the county has done a very poor job of listening to the opinions of the residents who live there. If they did a better job of listening, they'd be able to fix some of these problems before they become so incredibly endemic."

    Liu, the housing director, has said in the past he's trying to keep all Liberty Square residents involved in all the changes going on. 
    UPDATE: On Wednesday, Annette Molina, spokeswoman for the county housing department, said that since the bidding process has started, the department is under the "cone of silence" and can't comment. The deadline for bids has been extended by a week, and are now due July 9.
     One subject where government leaders apparently aren't listening is finding activities and jobs for kids in places like Liberty Square, sometimes called Pork 'n' Beans by residents.    "What are the kids supposed to do after school?" asks Trenise Bryant, board chair of the Miami Workers Center. "And what about summer jobs?" She says there was a time when schools and social services offered summer jobs. 
Trenise Bryant

    "Now the 13-year-old, the 14-year-old, they don't have nothing to do," Bryant says. "They learn to survive on the streets. 'How do I get the next pair of shoes?' "
    In fact, after the 1980 riots, a report by a state panel and a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report said that a key to changing Liberty City was to provide job and recreational activities for youths. That's still lacking.

             SECOND UPDATE: One person impressed with the center's efforts is Tom Petersen, who spent several years studying public housing as a top assistant to State Attorney Janet Reno in the 1980s and then became a juvenile judge.
            After reading the original post, he said the Miami Workers Center is a rare -- and needed -- group.
            "I bemoan the lack of legitimate community based organizations," Petersen wrote in an email.  "All of the existing CBOs are narrowly defined as providing traditional social services and none are based on real social change.  Which is, of course, that they are dependent on county, or other government, funding. CBOs that are willing or able to speak out in a way not approved by local government are –  as far as I know – non-existent.
            "I just sent $100 to the Miami Workers Center and a membership request.  I am very anxious to learn more about them.  They are an almost extinct species and need protection."
                                           DUNN PROPOSAL
    The women interviewed by the Miami Workers Center were adamantly opposed to a proposal by Marvin Dunn, a retired FIU professor, who suggests paying "surrogate fathers" -- young, college-educated men -- to move into places like Liberty Square, where most families are led by single mothers. 
Marvin Dunn
The idea is they would become mentors and role models. The Knight Foundation is funding a pilot study.
    Whiley, the center's past chair, doesn't think moms need advice from paid outsiders. "We do what we have to do to raise our children. ... Why do you feel that a low-income mom can't control her kids, that a man-figure has to be there? " 
    Bryant calls the idea "crap." If a single mom feels a son needs some manly advice, she can turn to a brother or a cousin. 

    "And a lot of football players are raised by single women of color," Bryant says. "I'll give you just one name. Teddy Bridgewater." A star quarterback at Miami Northwestern and the University of Louisville, now with the Minnesota Vikings. "He was raised by a poor single mom. And what is he today? He's a pro football player."
Marcia Olivo
Marcia Olivo, the center's project director: "There are a lot of single moms in Coral Gables. Do they say she can't raise her son?" But the standard of living in the affluent Gables is far higher than impoverished Liberty City.  "They'll have all the resources they need to raise that son -- and then they put the blame on poor women?"
Dunn responds that if his idea is implemented, "the residents will have a lot to say  about  how this is to be done. Nothing is to be imposed on anyone. If a single mom feels she does not want or need the support she does not have to participate in the program. ...  This initiative is a VOLUNTARY effort. If the residents council at Liberty Square rejects the concept, it will not be implemented at all. Second, yes, of course some men do manage to do just fine with a single mom.  But not everyone can plan on playing professional sports." 
      NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the current titles of Rosalie Whiley, Trenise Bryant and Marcia Olivo.

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