In Overtown, plans to dramatically expand a safe haven for battered and homeless women and children are colliding with visions of a commercial rebirth.
Lotus House leaders are scheduled to go before Miami city commissioners Thursday to seek tentative approval for a zoning and land-use change that would allow the bohemian shelter for women and children to redevelop its campus and just about double its capacity. Shelter president Constance Collins says the “Lotus Village” project is necessary because the old, renovated apartment buildings that currently house about 250 people at 217 NW 15th St. are at a breaking point and far too small to address an overwhelming demand.
The Lotus House Endowment Fund has secured a construction loan and plans to privately fund the $25 million project. Collins says Lotus House plans to immediately seek building permits should the commission sign off on the expansion, which would require two hearings. But the shelter’s plans are getting some push-back from a crucial source: Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon.
Hardemon, who represents Overtown, says he worries the historic, black community is unfairly becoming the hub for the county’s homeless shelters. Meanwhile, executives with the city’s tax-funded Overtown redevelopment agency, which Hardemon leads as chairman, contend that their plans to revitalize the struggling community envision the area around Lotus House as a commercial district.
We’re trying to build up a community, and this can’t be the drop-off place for the homeless
James McQueen, chief of staff to Commissioner Keon Hardemon
“We’re trying to build up a community, and this can’t be the drop-off place for the homeless,” said Hardemon’s chief of staff, James McQueen. “All of these people [supporting Lotus House] are well-intended, but none of them would want it in their neighborhoods. So what happens is Allapattah and Overtown become the dumping grounds for the homeless.”
Currently, in addition to Lotus House, the greater Overtown area is also home to the Miami Rescue Mission, Camillus House, Mother Teresa and the Homeless Assistance Center shelters. McQueen says communities like Aventura and Pinecrest should step up and do more to embrace the homeless, but advocates say the confluence of shelters in and around Overtown has everything to do with the immediate needs.
“Lotus House doesn’t need to be in Key Biscayne, Coconut Grove or Coral Gables. The individuals and families we serve are near us,” said Collins, who said she was “floored” when told about Hardemon’s concerns. “The majority of people we serve are actually from his district.”
Lotus House doesn’t need to be in Key Biscayne, Coconut Grove or Coral Gables
Lotus House president Constance Collins
Last week, Miami’s volunteer Overtown Community Advisory Board unanimously supported the Lotus House expansion after a crowd of women and children wearing pink T-shirts packed the Culmer Center on Third Avenue to talk about the importance of the expansion, which calls for a five-story complex with courtyards, fountains, community rooms, a maternity ward, training centers, library and a wellness center open to the surrounding neighborhood.
During the meeting, Michelle Wade said she ended up at Lotus House after her home became a notorious commune for the remnants of the Occupy Miami movement and was condemned about three years ago by the city. She said she was homeless and pregnant at the time, and found a bed at Lotus House about one week after the birth of her son.
“I cried,” said Wade, now 25 and a Lotus House employee. “It was the best thing God had ever given me.”
They do a tremendous job, so let’s start there. But what they’re asking for is a major expansion of their territory
Commissioner Keon Hardemon
McQueen and the redevelopment agency’s assistant director, Cornelius Shiver, both said their concerns over the project and requested zoning change — which are supported by Mayor Tomás Regalado and Miami’s planning department — shouldn’t be misconstrued as opposition to Lotus House. Similarly, Hardemon, who according to his staff was sick and unavailable to speak to a reporter this week, said in a recent interview that his concerns with their expansion are separate from his feelings about their mission.
“I support what they do at their site. They do a tremendous job, so let’s start there. But what they’re asking for is a major expansion of their territory and a major expansion of the number of people living there,” he said. “I can’t convince a young professional to move into an area where it’s full of homeless shelters.”