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Miami Herald - Sep. 12, 2004 -

Carrfour - Little Haiti Gateway Project

A Little Haiti haven for formerly homeless people and ex-drug abusers will be honored by a state housing group for its innovative design and program.

By Andrea Robinson

It would be easy to mistake the soft pink, baby blue and lime green gingerbread cottages just off Martin Luther King Boulevard as a vacation haven. But inside the complex, Little Haiti Gateway offers more than a haven to its occupants.

Just ask Charles Rackley, 54, a part-time drug counselor and artist. For him, the complex is a refuge from the drug-hazed hustle in which he lived for the better part of 30 years.

''The place is very serene, tranquil,'' Rackley said, pensive, carefully choosing his words. ``That's what I needed more than anything.''

Like Rackley, most of the nearly 80 tenants are formerly homeless or are recovering from drug addiction or mental illness. All are slowly emerging from destitution. Gateway gives them long-term housing and vocational, mental and life-skills counseling to help ease their transition into full-class status.

Next week, Carrfour Supportive Housing Corp., developer of the facility, will be honored by the Florida Housing Coalition for its program of providing permanent homes and a system of counseling and educational support to a hard-to-serve population. The award will be presented at the coalition's annual affordable housing conference in Tampa.

The company was selected as a success story for how planners transformed a ramshackle motel complex at 6201 NE Second Ave. into a brightly colored, Caribbean-themed housing development especially for the formerly homeless.

Equally impressive to Florida Housing Coalition President Jaimie Ross is how Carrfour cobbled together a mix of public and private dollars to complete the $4.2 million project.

The Little Haiti Gateway project is the result of a public-private partnership that was developed by Carrfour. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta provided the initial funding to purchase the site and Wachovia Corporation overcame the final funding gap that made the project possible by structuring favorable financing.

''They took what was not beautiful and turned it into housing for people with special needs who would otherwise be homeless, and truly enhanced the property,'' Ross said. ``I'm big on art and architecture, and making affordable housing beautiful.''

And it fits the pocketbooks of people who are on meager incomes and are just reentering the workforce.

The concept of supportive housing is to provide units to extremely low-income people, along with a staff of on-site counselors who help them map out their individual goals.

A statistical breakdown of the characteristics of the tenants since the development opened gives a glimpse into the complexity of cases with which the staff must contend.

According to staff records, more than one-quarter of the tenants were chronically homeless; seven percent came directly from drug treatment and another 36 percent were in transitional housing following drug or mental health treatment. Almost 20 percent of them came directly from the street.

Maria Pellerin Barcus, president and CEO of Carrfour, said each resident is assigned a service coordinator who assesses their needs and connects them with training. Then the clients work on their own independent living plan.

''At first lots of connections have to be made . . . to get them where they need to go,'' Barcus said. ``As time goes by, the employment team kicks in to work with residents to find employment and training to get better jobs.''

George Felder, 44, arrived at Gateway last fall from a Little Havana rooming house, where he had been immobilized by severely arthritic legs.

Felder now is somewhat mobile and attends computer classes at Miami Dade College's Wolfson campus. In the beginning, he spoke with his counselor about finances. That happens less often now, he said.

He considers this a temporary stop. Eventually he wants a house. But he realizes he has to start someplace.

''Right now, [Little Haiti Gateway] helps me. But I'm looking forward to go other places,'' Felder said.

There are rules that must be followed. Prospective tenants must have been clean and sober for six months and they must sign a pledge that they will remain that way. Random drug tests are administered.

Visitors cannot bring substances on the premises.

Even with the strict regulations, Gateway has a waiting list of more than 200 people who want an efficiency or small one-bedroom units.

Little Haiti Gateway opened to much fanfare in the summer of 2003, touted as a successful private and public partnership with Wachovia Bank, the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County.

Rackley first heard of the new digs a year before it opened while making a return appearance at a treatment facility.

Once he was released, he bounced between the homes of friends until Little Haiti Gateway opened.

After ending a 30-year fog of heroin and crack use, he was happy to find a place with strict rules.

''I didn't want to live like that anymore,'' he said, recalling his addiction.

``I wasn't anxious. I was relieved. I was grateful. I really was.''