Liberty Square Haven

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A "Safe Haven" in Liberty Square

Updated 5:40 a.m. Sept. 25 to add comments of Children's Trust and Commissioner Hardemon's office.

By John Dorschner 

     At the heart of Liberty Square, in cramped rooms beside  the community center, is the children's services area of Samantha Quarterman, taking care of some of the neediest kids in the neediest sector of Dade County while struggling to find funding.
    She is both hopeful and skeptical about the bidding process going on now for a $200 million redo of the 78-year-old,  753-unit public housing unit in the center of Liberty City. 
    "It's going to create jobs," says Quarterman, whose organization is called the Multi-Ethnic Young Group Association (MEYGA).  "I just hope whoever gets the project does the right thing with it – and has social services involved, to give back to the community, because they're going to need it.”
Samantha Quarterman

    She says two of the six bidders -- Carrfour Supportive Housing and Miami Waymark, both nonprofits -- have chatted with her about what her needs might be in a redesigned project. “I hope we can move back over here, and I hope we can get a bigger educational place, so we can keep on what we're doing.”
    Will the county promise MEYGA a spot in the new Liberty Square? Michael Liu, the county's housing director, said in an email that he was prohibited from answering  because of the "cone of silence" surrounding the bidding process and the "involvement by many service organizations in this process."
    Clearly, Liberty Square is in deep need of social services, 
According to 2013 estimates of its census tract, 47.4 percent of those over 15 are mired in poverty. Unemployment runs 46.8 percent. Those sad statistics are virtually unchanged from 1980, the year of the McDuffie riots, which sparked national and state blue-ribbon panels, which demanded major increases in social programs in the area -- demands that were quickly ignored.

         "Liberty Square Needs a New Beginning" 

   The county's idea is that a new Liberty Square would consist of mixed income housing, with the very poor living close to some middle-class families. 
     "I think that's a good idea," Quarterman says. "Liberty Square needs a new beginning. ... Right now, all we have is a lot of poverty. We don't have any jobs. We don't have any companies who want to come into this area. It's a whole social services type of thing – it's a handout type of thing. … The community deserves better." 
    She grew up in the area, went to Northwestern High and Florida Atlantic University. “I had a great passion for working with children.” For a while she worked with the juvenile justice system in crime prevention efforts.
    In 2006, Sherdavia Jenkins, 9, was shot and killed while playing with her doll outside her Liberty Square home. Quarterman decided to open an after-school program for girls. Several years later, a 19-year-old man hung himself from a tree in the project, and Quarterman decided she should expand the program to boys, too.

Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park. Source: Google Maps
    “We are the safe haven in this community," where kids are often being raised by single moms or grandparents. She provides an after-school program, summer camp and a small school for troubled kids with learning disabilities.
    At times, she's fed up to 200 kids a day. “This is not a high-paying job. You do it because it's something that needs to be done.” Her latest available 990 IRS form, which nonprofits must file, states she earns $31,000.
    She's constantly scrambling for money. "I was doing it out of my pocket for a while. I almost lost my home three or four times, taking mortgages to fund my efforts."
    In recent years, she has been funded largely by Miami Children's Trust, which by law gets a small slice of the property tax that works out to about $45 year for the average non-homesteaded house.

            Children's Trust Said Funding Would Stop

     Earlier this year, the Trust told Quarterman her funding would stop Aug. 1. "I didn't know what to do. ... I cried about it. I talked to my heavenly father about it."
    Doug Mayer, an affordable housing developer who's on Quarterman's board of directors, says one issue was that the Trust started requiring annual audits, and her organization was too small to perform that kind of financial reporting.
     Emily Cardenas, the Trust's director of communications, said it's true that all entities receiving funds now need to be audited, but the more pressing issue was that earlier in the year the Trust didn't know how much it would be getting from the property tax. 
    In black areas, some activists raised a bit of a row because three major social programs serving black youths -- TACOLCY in Liberty City and Teen Upward Bound in Opa-locka, as well as Quarterman's MEYGA -- had lost funding. TACOLCY had particularly been in the spotlight, with its leader forced to resign last year because of questionable spending practices.
    Cardenas at the Trust says many areas -- including Homestead and Florida City -- claimed they weren't being treated fairly. She points to a Trust map showing the locations of after-school programs funded by the Trust throughout the county, including quite a representation in the impoverished Liberty City/Brownsville areas.  

        Money Comes in Three Weeks from Deadline

    In July, the Trust received increased estimates of higher property tax revenues, meaning it had more money to dole out. At its July 13th meeting -- less than three weeks before the money ran out, MEGYA and the other two entities were approved for a three-year cycle of funding, with the understanding that each of the three agreed to "accept administrative and fiscal support services as required by the Children's Trust."
    MEGYA's share: $111,600 per year. Much of that goes to pay salaries of the staff overseeing the kids. She said the Trust has provided accountants to help her with audits. “I did everything they told us to do.”
    Cardenas says the Trust is urging groups like MEYGA to seek several sources of funding, so they aren't utterly reliant on the Trust. Quarterman says she's certainly trying. She also gets a small amount from the county, but that shrank in the past year, and she's been unsuccessful so far in finding other sources. “Right now, I'm just glad to get another year that I don't have to put my home up” to pay expenses.

     UPDATE: After initial publication, the Children's Trust asked that this clarifying note be added from Stephanie Sylvestre, chief operating officer: "While MEYGA was not successful in the competitive solicitation, they were selected as one of three agencies to participate in a new capacity building program with The Children's Trust. As part of that participation, they received funding, fiscal and programmatic supports and assistances from certified public accountants and mentors [who] are paid by the Children's Trust."

                 Needs More Space to Serve More Kids

    With more than 600 units in Liberty Square -- and many of those units having more than one child -- there is a huge need for children's services, particularly after school, when bored kids can tend to hang out on corners with the wrong type of role models. 
    At one time, she had 69 children in the crowded space, but then she was required to get a state license from the Department 
of Children and Family Services, which stated her square footage could support only 30 kids. 
    "I'm hoping we can get some space at a park or somewhere, because it devastates me to turn down kids. … That's why I'm fighting so hard." 
     She's been talking to the staff of City Commissioner Keon Hardemon about being able to use part of the recreation center in the nearby African Square Park.
     UPDATE: Kiara Garland, Hardemon's public information officer, said in an email: "Our office does not decide what entities provide service at each park. That is the responsibility of the administration."

             Tough Love and Treating with Respect

     On a recent morning, this reporter arrived at the cramped MEYGA space. Quarterman was busy talking to a boy. A fellow student had just stolen some paper from him in the classroom. Quarterman told him this was a serious matter, she was going to deal with it, "but right now I need you to calm down and go back to class."
    Which he did.    

    She told the reporter that she had established a private school during the day because some kids in her after-school program had learning disabilities. "They weren't functioning in regular schools. They needed a smaller environment."
    Since many Liberty Square kids were already low-performing in the nearby public schools, she's essentially treating the worst of the worst.
    "Our kids have emotional problems. They're not making it in school. You touch them, they're angry." The key for her and her teachers is when a problem comes up: "You don't downplay it, like it's nothing to talk about. No one is addressing their issues."
    She also believes in tough love: “When one of the kids messes up, everybody doesn't go on the field trip. That makes everybody behave better. Everybody treats each other with respect.”
    Earlier that morning, a 10-year-old girl had "an episode. She didn't want to come to school. I told the teacher: Go pick the girl up. Because otherwise she's going to do the same thing over and over. ... 
    "Half of these kids call me mommy. 'Don't call me mommy.' 'Well, can we call you aunty?' 'No, you can call me Miss Samantha.' But the only reason they say that is they want to be a part of something."

                                     The Y Generation 

       She calls these kids the "Y Generation. Why are you here? You have no purpose. They need an outlet, someone who's going to be in a place to help them. ... I came up with a program to do a play theater -- talent shows, just to get them involved. ...
    "They're smart. They can figure out computers, but ... they need some type of guidance. They don't know what they want to do. Parents will say my child can't do that. And I say, 'All right, we're not going to say that anymore because your child believes what you say.' "
        There are plenty of problems in Liberty Square and the surrounding area, but she thinks the media tends to exaggerate. "This area is not as bad as you think. It has a lot of episodes, don't get me wrong. But a lot of those people aren't from this area. It's outside people who bring crime to this area. ... We do have a gang issue over here, I won't deny that. But the murder and all that – it's people from the outside coming in."
    Still, all those stories about crime make it so people don't want to come to Liberty Square. "I have some sorority sisters: 'We want to come help.' But when I told them where, they say they can't come here."

    She hopes that a new Liberty Square makes "a different brand for the community. We're right next to the expressway. We're close to the beaches. This is a gold mine right now."


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