The chronically homeless residents living at a Camillus House shelter in Brownsville have more than a roof over their heads — they now have a roof tricked out with high-tech solar panels that put the old African-American hospital at the forefront of clean energy.
The panels, part of an $80,000 energy makeover, evolved from a class project by Chloe Castro, a Florida International University communication arts graduate.
Her assignment: design a project to translate philanthropy into everyday life, then persuade 27 classmates that hers was better than theirs.
Castro, whose brother founded the nonprofit IDEAS for Us to promote sustainable energy initiatives and helped run the FIU chapter, decided she wanted to do something for the environment. But making her case turned out to be tougher than she anticipated.
“They were like, ‘Where’s the money going? To the air? Well, we can’t see that.’ It wasn’t tangible. So I said why don’t we do something sustainable for a nonprofit and it ended up being Camillus House, the longest standing homeless shelter in Miami,” she explained. “We said let’s throw up solar panels and retrofit it and we were able to conceptualize, at that point, a real project.”
After winning the class competition’s $25,000 prize, Castro and her brother Chris, who is also the senior energy advisor for Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, got to work leveraging the grant into more benefits. Chris Castro contacted Advanced Green Technology and persuaded the solar contractor to provide the panels and kick in a $10,000 donation. The pair also obtained a $40,000 rebate from Florida Power & Light and persuaded Citizens Energy to retrofit the building at 4700 NW 32nd Ave. with LED lighting and new thermostats at no cost.
“It’s beautiful. The lighting quality is better and their lighting consumption is 50 percent lower,” Chris Castro said. “The equation is efficiency and then renewables.”
Combined, the technology should cut electrical consumption at the facility by at least 20 percent and probably more, he said.
Constructed in 1958, the Brownsville Christian Housing Center can house up to 74 residents in efficiencies, each outfitted with a kitchen, bathroom, a twin bed, and an air conditioning unit. The facility was originally built to replace a 12-bed wooden building in Overtown opened by black residents after they were refused treatment at the county-owned hospital. The well-regarded hospital remained open even after other facilities began treating black patients, but was forced to close in 1982.
“Usually you think about us taking care of human beings. But in this case we became stewards of the environment,” said Camillus House CEO Shed Boren. “What’s really cool [about the project] is we’re getting young people to realize the impact of little changes. You don’t have to be a billionaire.”
After she settled on the idea of solar panels, Chloe Castro, who graduated in June, said she never thought twice about having her proposal rejected. She did, however, worry about convincing the charity to take her seriously.
“I’m 4-foot-10, so I look literally like a 12-year old child,” she said. “But once we met, they said absolutely.”
The team next needed to figure out which of the nonprofit’s buildings was most suitable for the panels. The roof had to be just right and maximize exposure to the sun. The Brownsville center fit the bill perfectly. Altogether, it took six months from the first site visit to complete work, Chloe Castro said.
“The biggest thing I learned is you have to mold your idea around the community, around the people, around the masses you’re trying to contact and spread the message to,” said Castro, who plans on attending law school. “If they’re not getting what I want them to get, I have to adapt my message.”
For Chris Castro, who is hoping to promote more clean energy projects through IDEAS for Us, the project shows that solar is possible even in a state that prohibits solar contractors from selling back electricity to customers to offset the upfront price of costly panels.
“This is in a city that is ground zero for climate change,” he said. “It doesn’t just become an environmental project, but a social and environmental solution.”