A planned $25 million expansion of a Miami shelter for homeless women and children was delayed by at least a month Thursday after Miami Commissioners said Lotus House leaders ought to spend more time talking to their skeptical Overtown neighbors.
Despite hours of testimony by formerly homeless mothers, advocates and even children clad in pink Lotus House T-shirts, city commissioners agreed unanimously at the request of Chairman Keon Hardemon to defer a vote on a rezoning of 11 parcels between Northwest Second and Third avenues. If approved, the lots, currently zoned for commercial businesses, would be changed to major institutions and public facilities to allow for the construction of a five-story compound.
Lotus House president Constance Collins wants to rebuild the existing campus in the 1500 block of Third Avenue in order to just about double capacity to around 490 women, children and babies. Currently, Lotus House clients are housed in five renovated apartment buildings that Collins says are bursting at the seams amid a homeless crisis.
But while the prospects of doubling the size of the shelter has been mostly celebrated, some in Overtown, including Hardemon, feel that homeless shelters have been thrust onto a community trying to rebuild its once-thriving commerce and nightlife while also grappling with a steady stream of homeless who exit from the county jail and Jackson Memorial Hospital. The greater Overtown area is also home to the Miami Rescue Mission, Camillus House, Mother Teresa and the Homeless Assistance Center shelters.
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Why does it have to be in Overtown?
Karen Cartwright, Overtown activist
“I agree Lotus House has changed dynamics [in Overtown], but not enough to make me say ‘OK expand,’” said activist Karen Cartwright. “Why does it have to be in Overtown?”
Ron Book, chairman of the board of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, said the county agency that oversees homeless services has built and supported shelters across the county, not just in Overtown. But he said the explanation for expanding Lotus House in Overtown is simple.
“Right or wrong, good or bad, a large percentage of those tents aren't from people generally outside our community. They're people who've fallen on hard times in Overtown,” he said.
Collins said Lotus House met with hundreds of residents around Overtown who support the project, received support form an Overtown advisory board and has previously said delaying the project would be akin to leaving women and children out on the street. Supporters noted that the campus includes a wellness center that would be open to area residents.
But Hardemon said the commission has often deferred votes on zoning items that met resistance from neighbors. He questioned why Overtown wouldn’t get the same courtesy, regardless of the purpose of the proposed expansion.
“We’ve stood against babies because the community said we don’t want a daycare in our community. You're talking about a facility that houses 500 women and children,” he said. “I'm not here saying yay or nay. I'm saying ‘may I have a deferral so my community can actually come and talk about this?’”
Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort moved to defer the Lotus House vote to May, and Hardemon seconded the motion. Commissioners Frank Carollo, Ken Russell and Francis Suarez remained silent during the vote to defer, but did not oppose it.
In other action, commissioners:
- Awarded $630,000 in anti-poverty grants from Hardemon’s district to the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., an organization known as FOCAL, and the city's Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust. Another $317,000 in city money went to renovate Shantel’s Lounge.
- Awarded $600,000 to Skate Free, an organization planning to build a skate park under I-95 in downtown, on the condition that the organization secure its land long-term.