Old Camillus House shelter is demolished as new $80 million campus opens near Miami’s Jackson hospital

As Camillus House’s 52-year-old shelter near downtown Miami was demolished, raising hopes for the redevelopment of the forlorn Park West district, residents have moved to a new $80-million facility.

06/25/2012 5:00 AM

06/25/2012 7:14 PM

The last residents at the old Camillus House in downtown Miami moved out before dawn Monday, the power was cut, and a big excavator began gnawing at the walls that for more than 50 years provided shelter, food and solace for untold thousands of homeless people.

The demolition of the shelter’s cramped quarters, which incongruously took place as Miami Heat fans swarmed the neighborhood for the team’s championship parade two blocks away on Biscayne Boulevard, is a signal milestone in city history.

For the long-suffering Park West district, its property owners and city officials, the disappearance of the shelter and its soup line raises hopes that a long-postponed revival can finally get underway. They say the shelter and its often unruly clients, scores of whom occupied the surrounding sidewalks day and night, were a source of blight that kept redevelopment at bay even as the adjacent downtown boomed.

The demolition also means good news for the people Camillus House serves. They are trading a rudimentary warren cobbled out of old storefronts for a new, $80 million campus near Jackson Memorial Hospital designed to get them off the streets for good.

The multi-building campus, which is being built in phases, will more than triple Camillus House’s capacity to 340 people by the time it’s fully done in a couple of years.

It also provides an enhanced suite of comprehensive services, including an expanded residential treatment center for substance abuse and mental-health issues, as well as on-site housing options that range from the traditional emergency shelter to 80 already occupied permanent apartments — and even a kennel for the dogs that some homeless people keep for security and companionship.

“Camillus has been here for a long time in an inadequate facility which has caused a lot of problems,’’ said Daniel Cromer, whose family wholesale-clothing warehouse has shared the block with Camillus House since the shelter’s founding by the Catholic order of the Brothers of the Good Shepherd in 1960. “Their leaving for a bigger and modern facility is going to be a wonderful thing for the neighborhood.’’

If the shelter was considered a drag on Park West, the new campus represents a marked upgrade for what’s also been a hardscrabble neighborhood of auto shops, vacant lots and worn apartments wedged between the eastern edge of the Jackson campus and Interstate 95.

At the 3-acre Norwegian Cruise Line Campus, named after one of its chief donors and designed by the local firm of Wolfberg Alvarez & Partners, Camillus House clients will live amid shady arcades and patios and eat in a gleaming dining room equipped with a state-of-the art kitchen. It’s meant to be secure and self-contained, and a resource for the area, with a community meeting room, a 100-seat auditorium, and space for a cafe and convenience store opening onto Northwest Seventh Avenue.

The echoes of a classical monastery, complete with a bell tower — though without a bell — were deliberate, said Camillus House director Paul Ahr.

“We see all the people who come here as pilgrims. We’re here to provide time to reflect and recover from life on the streets,’’ Ahr said. “What we have now is a place that reflects the dignity of the people we serve.’’

Another big difference over the old: Under a years-in-the-making deal with the city that paved the way for the relocation, Camillus House will no longer feed people off the street, so that the new campus won’t become a magnet for sidewalk sleepers.

“There will be plenty of feeding. We’re just getting out of the soup-line business,” Ahr said. “The main show is, we want to end chronic homelessness in Miami, and we kept our eye on the prize.’’

Less clear is what comes next for Park West, once the warehousing district for the Port of Miami when it was on the site of Bicentennial Park, and long Miami’s skid row. Marked for redevelopment in the 1970s and ‘80s, Park West saw little beyond demolition of flophouses and construction of the since-demolished Miami Arena and a pair of residential high-rises.

An ambitious, multi-block redevelopment project, Miami World Center, collapsed along with the real-estate boom. And despite signs of life, including the club district and developer-activist Brad Knoefler’s renovation of the Grand Central loft building and construction of an adjacent temporary park on the old arena site, those remain islands in a wasteland of vacant lots used for AmericanAirlines Arena parking.

“It’s not a panacea,’’ Knoefler said of the shelter’s relocation. “Camillus House has been symbolic of the homeless problem downtown for many years, but it’s not the cause. The homeless are downtown because it’s a kind of no-man’s land. That Camillus House is out of the neighborhood is a good thing, for sure, but the dynamics are more complicated than that.’’

It’s also unclear whether the homeless people who congregate in the area will go elsewhere. Though their numbers seemed to drop as Camillus ramped down operations downtown, many of them are chronically homeless people who refuse the treatment services necessary to get them settled into housing.

Some may stick around for the meals distributed by volunteers who drive downtown to feed the homeless — a controversial practice that city officials, Knoefler and others say produces litter and unsanitary conditions while discouraging people from seeking help.

“As long as they feed them, then they’re going to be here,’’ said Willie Thomas, a homeless man hanging out with a group across the street from the old shelter last week.

There is also concern that some will indeed drift to the Jackson area, already a draw for homeless people because of the Sisters of Charity facility, a small shelter with a soup line across Northwest Seventh Avenue from the new Camillus campus.

But Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes downtown, called the shelter’s departure “a game changer.’’

“This is as big a deal as Miami will ever see downtown,’’ he said.

As for the Camillus property, it’s for sale and is already drawing interest, Ahr said. A private party has offered more than $2 million, he said.

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