The overgrown, scraggly corner lot in one of the poorest neighborhoods of one of the nation's least-affordable cities hadn't looked like much to passersby. But for nearly 50 people living in makeshift shanties there for six months, it was not only a home but a bold stand for stubborn hope.
The question now is whether a fire that consumed Umoja Village early Thurs- day and displaced the homeless people who lived there will extinguish a grass-roots movement to make Miami a more equitable place for its poorest res- idents.
By day's end, Miami leaders had to acknowledge that politics took precedence over safety. The city allowed men, women, even the elderly, to live in wood and cardboard shanties -- without smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, fire alarms -- until a candle led to the destruction of all the structures.
"If someone had died last night, from the legal perspective it would have been our negligence," City Manager Pete Hernandez told The Miami Herald. "From the moral perspective, we were trying to work with them to let them get their mes- sage across."
When homeless people began moving to the vacant lot at Northwest 17th Avenue and 62nd Street months ago, "I wanted to shut it down," Hernandez said. "Days went by. Weeks went by. It became more difficult. It became politi- cal. I tend to agree with their message. They were out there protesting because of government's failure. The city. The county. All of us."
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said he favored shutting down the camp: "We've always had concerns. People seemed to focus on the politics and not on the human life."
Diaz said the city wanted the residents to leave but also wanted to respect their situation and give them a say. "We kept sending county and city service people to get them to leave nicely. We were in a no-win situation. The city was trying to be sensitive," he said.
Thursday afternoon, the city fenced off the land, which angered activists who had supported the village.
"They're using an accident to enforce their action to regain the land, which is what they've wanted all along," said Denise Perry of the activist group Power U. How safe are people who sleep outside or under the bridges?. We can go back and forth on what is safe."
The 44 displaced, homeless people wanted to know where they would sleep Thursday night. Some refused to leave the land. One man chained himself to a table.
"I ain't going nowhere," Wanda Whetstone said as she sat on a log. "I told you, I'll get arrested. But they ought to be housing us, not jailing us."
KICKED OFF LAND
Miami police had arrested a dozen people by late Thursday, including Umoja organizer Max Rameau after he didn't heed an order to stop erecting a tent on the land. Others relented and took a bed at shelters offered by agencies sent to the site by the city.
One human-services advocate lamented that South Florida had let Umoja Vil- lage come to this: 44 homeless people scrambling for their lives in the middle of the night as fire destroyed the few belongings they had.
"For six months we've had this very major public statement being made about the lack of affordable housing and the lack of progress to build more housing," said Daniella Levine, executive director of the Miami-Dade Human Services Coalition. "It captured the imagination of a lot of people as a symbol of what hasn't been done to address the housing crisis."
Now Levine wonders if the momentum and spirit generated by the village has been squandered: "Overnight the passion of quite a lot of people to solve this problem went up in smoke."
She and other Umoja supporters had acknowledged that the wood and card- board shanties never were a permanent solution. "I thought that the plan the Umoja organizers announced this week to move toward yurts and tents was a step in the right direction."
Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones considered trying to shut down the village -- which is in her district -- because she considered it a health and safety hazard. But she backed off after criticism from housing activists. She appointed a community-based task force to work out a solution with Umoja organizers. A town hall meeting had been planned for May 2. Thursday morning, the news of the fire rattled her.
"Thank God nobody was hurt," she said. "This has always been my concern."
Umoja Village was founded by activist Rameau, who strategically selected a piece of public land to seize for homeless people to live on after he became frus- trated with the county's lack of response to the region's affordable housing cri- sis. The fire comes just three days after its six-month anniversary.
The "action," as he calls it, was a response to a Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald series that found the Miami-Dade Housing Agency squandered millions of dollars earmarked for affordable housing units -- most of which were never built.
Rameau and the homeless built a community on the lot. They voted on rules, like evicting disruptive residents. They grew collard greens and spinach and cooked their own food. They planted sunflowers. College students donated enough books for a library. Social service agencies offered help -- and have placed about 30 former residents in permanent housing.
On Monday, Rameau announced Umoja was planning to upgrade the shanties by phasing in sturdier, safer yurts designed for refugee camps.
He said on Thursday, he'd still like to build the yurts.
"The spirit of Umoja is still strong," he said. "After we all stopped crying last night, we gathered and gave thanks that no one died. And we all had an incredi- ble moment of clarity that we would fight on despite this incident. This is worth fighting for."
Miami Herald staff writers Andrea Robinson, Erika Beras, Kathleen McGrory and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.