The president of Miami’s only homeless shelter exclusively for women and children is standing inside a medical exam room that once served as an efficiency kitchen, explaining how she and her staff once cooked meals here for nearly three dozen “guests.”
It doesn’t seem possible. There’s barely enough space for Constance Collins to turn around. But the women who run this bohemian compound of old Overtown apartment buildings have always made meager means into miracles.
“When we first started, I would go to the grocery store about every day with two shopping karts,” says Collins, the former CFO of a real estate investment firm who eschewed her career to care for frighened women and children. “I’d push one in front of me and pull the other behind me.”
Lotus House has blossomed in just 10 short years. Since 2006, Collins, her staff and volunteers have taken broken buildings along Northwest Second Avenue and given them new life as havens for wounded people. They acquired new buildings when they needed space, reconfigured the old, and created an organic compound where “therapy cats” roam beneath coconut palms and former clients return as the most empathetic of employees.
Today, some 250 women and children are embraced here among pink and purple buildings. Overall, more than 1,800 have come through Lotus House’s vine-laced gates, including pregnant mothers in desperate need of prenatal care and battered women with traumatized children.
But for all the quaint and inner beauty of the place, it has some fatal flaws. The buildings have been reborn, but the plumbing has not. Old apartment units are packed with cribs and toddler beds, housing multiple families. And the stress of cooking 90,000 meals a year in a new kitchen carved out of a 1920s building — and food served in an outdoor mess hall — is stretching the shelter’s ability to function.
Worst of all, it’s not big enough. Each year, Collins says Lotus House rejects 2,400 women and children because there is simply no room.
“We are turning away women and children every single day,” says Collins, whose cramped office is in earshot of the shelter’s admissions room. “It’s the worst part about what we do.”
The only way to change that, she says, is by turning Lotus House into Lotus Village.
Over the past year, Collins has put plans in place to redevelop her campus into a modern, five-story complex with courtyards, fountains, community rooms, training centers and a full-fledged wellness center open to the surrounding neighborhood. To facilitate an expansion, the Lotus House Endowment Fund, with the help of the Braman Family Charitable Foundation, purchased several parcels around the campus at 217 NW 15th St. The endowment fund also secured a $19 million construction loan undersigned by former developer Martin Margulies as Collins embarks on a campaign to raise $25 million in private funds.
Construction is tentatively slated to start in June, and the new compound would open in late 2017. Capacity would just about double.
“We designed this facility for everything we hoped for, wanted and need,” Collins says.
The needs are pressing.
According to a conservative count by the Miami-Dade school system, there are more than 4,000 children living in shelters, on the street, in hotels and on friends’ couches. Last month, an annual homeless census and survey in Miami-Dade found that of 4,235 homeless people in shelters and on the street, one-third were women. Families made up 15 percent of the homeless population — a number too great to accommodate at area shelters.
At the beginning of the month, the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust was paying to put up 61 families — which are overwhelmingly led by single women — in Little Havana and Homestead motels. That’s actually down from the previous year, when the county spent $744,000 on motel rooms.
“I’ve never seen so many families homeless in hotels at any time as we have now,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, whose administration handles homeless outreach for the county, said recently.
There are other shelters in Miami-Dade that serve women and children. But none do so exclusively, and there are times those turned away from Lotus House are left to sleep on the street. Collins says it wasn’t long ago that a young woman desperate to find shelter was turned away at the door on a Friday, and on Sunday Collins would receive a call from the Roxcy Bolton Rape Treatment Center.
“What Constance has done is fill a significant niche, void, need that we have had historically, which are placements for women and children,” said Ron Book, the Homeless Trust chairman. “I think what they do is heroic.”
Georgette Madison agrees. The 29-year-old mother sought refuge at Lotus House in 2013 after she says her brother, while struggling with mental illness, became aggressive. At the time, they were both living with her mother in Little Haiti, and out of fear for herself and her five-year-old daughter they left with a single bag of belongings.
A former foster child herself, Madison was scared that her daughter would have the same fate.
“I knew I didn’t want that for her,” she said, sitting on a wood-carved bench facing a playground. “Lotus House offered that sense of normalcy and home. Of being human.”
Madison says she had tried once before to get into Lotus House, but the shelter was full. This time, there was space. She had a job within 90 days working in hardware stores, and after a year — the typical length of stay at Lotus House — she’d earned enough money to rent her own place. Now she’s part of the Lotus House staff, helping women who find themselves in similar situations. With an expansion, she will be able to help more women and children.
In some ways, a redevelopment might be bitter sweet. Many of the staff who work at Lotus House have a deep connection to the place that helped them in their darkest moments, and there is a unique authenticity to the complex, which blends in so perfectly that people sometimes stop by looking to sign a lease. Collins herself was married in the courtyard here in 2008 to Margulies, now her ex-husband and close friend.
But Collins says there will be no regrets about tearing down her creation.
“As much as the campus we've created has been a very sweet home over the years, it's about the people, not the buildings,” she said. “Any nostalgia is completely secondary to me.”
The new building, if a required zoning change is approved by Miami commissioners, will include a library, a yoga room, a full-scale neighborhood wellness center, a teaching kitchen, maternity ward and a salon. An outdoor pavilion is planned for live musical performances and inspirational speakers. Lotus House has already submitted plans to the city and applied for a zoning change.
Collins hopes to secure approval to build this spring. She is already moving out shelter property and women and children are being relocated to newly acquired apartment buildings in the neighborhood to make way for demolition. She’s also seeking donations to help pay for the redevelopment, and looking for new funding sources for an operational budget that will increase when the new shelter reopens.
Margulies, who made his millions developing condos before retiring and becoming an art collector, says he’s prepared to pay off whatever the endowment fund can’t cover on the loan. He will be the developer of Lotus Village, which will be his last project.
“When you're fortunate enough to have a good amount of wealth, you want to make sure that money goes to a very valid cause and this certainly fits the bill,” he said. “It’s not just a place. It’s more than that.”