Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Fortress For the Homeless:

When an emaciated, gray-haired woman staggered into the ragtag encampment complaining of a toothache the other day, Eugene Simpkins fed her peanut butter sandwiches from the communal kitchen and fetched her aspirin from the makeshift medicine cabinet.

As night fell, the woman slept on a urine-stained couch, while Mr. Simpkins fried batches of cornmeal-dusted fish over a campfire. He pointed out four sick people he had been tending to since joining Umoja, a settlement of formerly homeless people in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, last month.

"I know someday I'll be old like her," said Mr. Simpkins, 43, who said he was an ordained Baptist minister and had lately been serving as Umoja's unofficial cook. "I just hope that when that day comes, there will be someone to take care of me."

Social experiment
With 16 huts cobbled together from plywood, discarded closet doors and cardboard, Umoja is a shantytown in the shadow of the biggest construction boom Miami has seen since the 1920s. Started in October by an advocate for low-income housing, it is part social protest and part social experiment, with nightly meetings where decisions on whether to evict people or how to split up chores are determined by consensus.

Most of the 40 residents said they had been sleeping on the streets before moving into Umoja's colorful shacks. The eyesore has become a warm community, with a resident poet entertaining regularly, and has won over some neighbors, including those who now bring by homemade sweet potato pies, despite previous complaints about trash and noise.

Commissioner's help
The city commissioner who represents the area, Michelle Spence-Jones, had tried to shut the settlement down with an ordinance to require a permit for gatherings on public land. But after several visits to Umoja, she withdrew the ordinance and instead promised to arrange for trash pickup at the site three times a week.

Ms. Spence-Jones stopped short, however, at the group's request for a mailbox. "That sends a whole other message," she said.

Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, is the brainchild of Max Rameau, 37, a stay-at-home father. The shantytown is based on a 1998 court ruling in which a federal district court judge said Miami could not criminalize homeless people for conducting "life-sustaining acts" including eating, sleeping, lighting a fire and building temporary structures on public land if local shelters were filled.

Mr. Rameau and others said the settlement was a symbol of Miami's growing housing crisis.

With apartment vacancy rates at 1.7 percent, down from 4.7 percent three years ago, and rents rapidly rising amid gentrification of poor neighborhoods, a report in October by the Miami-Dade County planning department said the area would need 294,200 new housing units by 2025, 42 percent of them for "very low- or low-income households."

Steep price of housing
A separate 2006 study by Florida International University found that half the families in West Liberty City could not afford a studio apartment in the area.

Michael Stoop, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said shantytowns like Umoja were "indicative that shelters are not the solution, and that homeless folks want to have themselves treated in a more dignified way."

The shacks, many covered by blue tarps, are ringed by a row of earthen plots where residents grow cabbage, collard greens, kale and papaya. A portable toilet, stacks of firewood, and the kitchen and pantry are lined up along one side, and an improvised shower sits in the back.

Mr. Rameau dismissed the notion that Umoja was a publicity stunt.

"There's a protest element to it, but this is fundamentally not a protest," he said. "At a protest, you go to a place, you make your demands heard and then you go home. Here, this is home."

by Laura Rivera New York Times

for michael stoop...

i am also michael stoop, stuck in a veterans transitional housing facility in inglewood, calif. been homeless, helpless, hopeless, sick, stupid, broke, crazy, insigificant, obsolete, obscure, pathological and disenfranchised since i was 43. i am now 60. exactly WHEN does life become managable? or even worth living?

please reply as my time is running out.

thanx for your consideration...

michael alan stoop, esq.

g o d i n u s 2 @ y a h o o
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