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Homeless take the football and run with it

Times Staff Writer

There may be “One Game, One Dream,” as Super Bowl XLI banners fluttering throughout the city proclaim. But advocates of the poor and homeless want the world to know there are two Miamis.

As tens of thousands descend on this spruced-up city for the country’s biggest sports party Sunday, the down and out are pointing beyond the sleek facade of high-rises, hip clubs and beachfront condos.

In a weeklong protest to draw attention to the city’s underside, homeless activists are putting a spotlight on the corruption and neglect they say permeates Miami and deprives the working class of a dignified existence.

Laurie Dowdell, 43, spends her days at “The Wall,” a billboard on the site of the razed Scott-Carver public housing complex where she and 850 other families were evicted three years ago. They were promised new homes, but nothing has been built. The billboard lists the names of the displaced, including Dowdell, in an effort to shame the county into finding them a place to live.

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“They said they were going to tear down this place and rebuild -- give us a better place,” said Dowdell, whose two daughters live with a cousin in Atlanta while she cleans houses and does odd jobs in Miami, where she can make more money.

A few blocks east, at another desolate corner of the crime-ridden Liberty City neighborhood, homeless people have erected a shantytown on a lot designated a decade ago for an affordable-housing project that never broke ground.

“The county is intentionally depleting the stock of low-income housing because that artificially props up rents in the private market,” said Max Rameau, an opponent of gentrification who is leading the protest.

Since Monday, residents of the shantytown, called Umoja, or “unity” in Swahili, have held guerrilla art parties, a Gentrification Teach-In and a Tour of Shame to showcase the sides of Miami that they say the Super Bowl promoters are trying to hide.

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About 20 out-of-town reporters boarded a bus in fashionable South Beach on Wednesday for the Miami Workers Center “reality tour.”

They visited the shantytown, watched homeless people clash with police as they tried to put up a camp in Overtown, and met residents of the Blue Lakes Mobile Home Park, who say their electricity has been shut off by the property owner to drive them off the prime urban land.

On Thursday, Rameau and other activists broke into an unoccupied public housing unit in Overtown, symbolically seizing it for a homeless man living at Umoja. Police arrived 30 minutes later and arrested the demonstrators.

A few hours later, the Glitz and Glam Granny Cheer Squad, homeless women from the Scott-Carver complex, rolled up on a flatbed truck to an NFL media event to wave pompoms and cheer for new public housing. They shouted encouragement to neighborhood youths on hand for a football clinic at a sports and education complex that the NFL built for Miami after the 1995 Super Bowl.

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More than one-third of Miami-Dade County’s 835,000 households are supported by workers earning the minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, or less.

The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust calculates that someone earning the minimum wage can afford $268 a month in rent. Because of a dearth of affordable or low-income housing, even dilapidated 1950s-era studio apartments in Liberty City are rented for $600 a month, according to census data compiled by the Miami Coalition for the Homeless.

“The prices are so high we can’t afford to live here,” said Mary Alice Wadley, gesturing toward crumbling two-story rentals still standing amid the razed public lots.

Officials of the Super Bowl host committee say the protest is trying to deflate the city’s party mood. They say it is inappropriate because the event is expected to generate $350 million in local spending, including NFL-mandated contracts with small minority-owned businesses. They also note that Super Bowl visitors aren’t responsible for Miami’s social services problems.

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“There’s a lot of publicity that comes with hosting the Super Bowl, and obviously we want that to be as positive as possible,” said Maria Scott, spokeswoman for the South Florida Super Bowl XLI Host Committee, a private group. “But there are always going to be people who want to share their opinion.”

Although the Super Bowl may benefit Miami’s poor and middle class with its weekend crush of food sales, valet parking, taxi rides, hotel stays and limousine rentals, it is a legitimate opportunity to raise concerns about the city’s housing crisis, said Ben Burton, executive director of the privately funded Miami Coalition for the Homeless.

He said families with both parents working full time often had to double up to afford housing. He noted that developers had built almost exclusively for the luxury condominium market over the last five years, a period in which real estate prices soared in Miami.

“It’s just not really profitable to build affordable housing for poor people,” Burton said, adding that the coalition was trying to get federal, state and local subsidies to motivate builders.

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In the overheated condo market, developers have overbuilt and many units in the newest inner-city towers are vacant.

Rameau said urban unrest was on the horizon if “we continue to have homeless people amid people-less homes.” He has asked housing officials to consider buying vacant private units to accommodate some of the 41,000 people on the county’s waiting list -- now closed -- for subsidized housing.

Ronald L. Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, said that wasn’t a practical solution.

“You have to put folks in those units who can ultimately afford the rental payment or the mortgage payment. Those condos were not built for workforce housing,” he said of the slow-selling downtown Skylofts.

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Book concedes the city has a serious shortage of affordable and low-income housing, but said homelessness was at an all-time low, with fewer than 2,000 people living on the streets.

“People looking for affordable housing are not necessarily homeless people,” he said.

He attributes the drop in homeless people -- down 50% since 2000 -- to the emergency shelters and relief grants the county has been able to finance with a $37-million annual budget. The trust benefits from a 1% food and beverage tax levied in most areas of the county, a revenue source that accelerates during big events like the Super Bowl.

Because the Umoja shantytown is on public land, police can’t stop the four dozen homeless people living in shacks built with wooden pallets and scrap lumber. They share donated food, a portable toilet and the warmth of a smoldering fire in an oil drum, free of worries that they could be carted away for blighting the football fans’ party backdrop.

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Jonathan Baker, a 33-year-old who works full time at a Miami International Airport concession but can’t afford to rent an apartment in the area, is one of the original Umoja squatters who seized the lot in October. He showed off his shanty, dedicated to Nelson Mandela, with garden plots and a shower that suggest the activists are digging in.

“This is a common-sense answer to the problems of homeless people that [county authorities] don’t want to solve,” Baker said.

carol.williams@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Miami-Dade profile

A look at the demographics of Miami-Dade County, which includes the

cities of Miami and Miami Beach:

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Population: 2.3 million*

Median age: 37

Median household income: $41,397

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Ethnicity*

Latino: 61%

Black: 18%

White: 18%

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Other: 2.4%

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Education

Less than 9th grade: 15%

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Some H.S.: 17%

H.S. grad: 22%

Some college/assoc. degree: 24%

Bachelor’s degree: 12%

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Master’s degree/higher: 9%

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(Numbers don’t add up to 100% due to rounding.)

*2005 figures

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Sources: U.S. Census, Claritas


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