At the end of the 2016 school year, over 5,000 Miami-Dade school children were registered as homeless. The heartbreaking phenomenon of homeless children is largely an invisible problem — something politicians rarely talk about and residents don’t see — but it’s a pressing one. Constance Collins, the president of Lotus House, the only Miami homeless shelter with wrap around support services exclusively serving women and children, wants to help provide stability for families and break the cycle. But Lotus House, which is opening a new facility later this year called Lotus Village, isn’t your standard shelter, they use a powerful and holistic approach tackling the complex issue of homelessness among women and children.
Founded in 2006 by the Sundari Foundation, Lotus House has been an anchor and a refuge for homeless women and youth in Miami since the day it opened. Homeless children are often shuffled from school to school as their parents’ or caretakers’ address constantly changes and Lotus House aims to bring stability and help these families escape childhood abuse and domestic violence. It currently serves 250 women and children daily and 680 annually.
Now, Lotus House is expanding its operations with a brand new complex in the city’s Overtown neighborhood — an historic black neighborhood dating back to the late 1800s — that will almost double its beds, serve 490 women and children each night, and provide care to 980 annually. Lotus Village is slated to open in December. The genesis of the idea came because Lotus House was facing rising demands, and was forced to turn away families in need. So Collins saw an opportunity to expand and try to meet the increasing need for their facilities and services by those who needed help most.
“It was the constant and growing demand for shelter with enriched support services for women, youth and children who are experiencing homelessness,” Collins recently told Next City. “That’s the first driver for us, was this enormous demand. We were turning away, and still are, over 2,000 women and children annually.”
Juliana Lima, now 41, said Lotus House wasn’t just a shelter. It was home. In late 2014, Lotus House took in her and her then 8-year-old daughter — who had been abused by her father at the age of four. They stayed for nearly two years going through therapy sessions as Lima also recovered from back surgery — part of the reason they ended up at Lotus House in the first place; she lost her job because she couldn’t work due to back problems. But Lima took advantage of Lotus House’s job training, enrolling in the retail training program (she said some of her friends took the barista training classes). This past fall the staff at Lotus House helped Lima and her daughter find an apartment — walking her through the steps, helping with the application, ensuring she landed on her feet. With her back on the mend she and her daughter are living on their own as she looks for work.
“It was a really good sense of community,” she said. “They help you with everything. Every single thing. It’s not only for people who lose their place. They have rehab for people who have problem with drugs and alcohol. Domestic violence. PTSD. It was like college. Because I learned how people live.”
Thankfully Lotus House didn’t deal with the pushback that some communities often do when shelters — which carry an unfair stigma, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods — want to expand. In Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood much needed shelters are being held up in courts by NIMBYs who are, they say, fighting for the character of the neighborhood. Collins and her Lotus House team had nothing but support from the surrounding community, with the exception of a handful of mostly quiet dissenters and some initial pushback from City Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon. Today, the community is fully behind Lotus Village.
“Lotus House provides a great service to our community,” Hardemon said last summer. “It’s an agency that’s important to the fabric of Miami. I believe that them having the ability to serve more people will benefit those in the program and the city of Miami. Passing this item is something that will be remembered for a very long time.”
Collins said Lotus Village could not have happened without the support, both from the city lawmakers and community members.
“Had we not had hundreds of people sign on from the neighborhood who were in support of the project, I don’t believe we would even be where we are today because these rezoning issues are very sensitive issues in communities,” Collins said. “No one likes the thought of a homeless shelter. And frankly, the fact that we design something that doesn’t look like a homeless shelter was also instrumental.”
Lotus Village is, as its name suggests, a village. The renderings look more like a new, vaguely suburban apartment complex than the hulking concrete shelters of the past. It will give families that come through it a sense of community and with onsite daycare (for 125-200 annually) and onsite healthcare (which is for all Overtown residents, not just those staying at Lotus Village) it will give families the opportunity to find better work and ultimately land on their feet.
It’s a model of what a comprehensive homeless services organization should look like in the future. And Collins was excited about the opportunities Lotus Village will afford its new inhabitants once it opens. It’s completely reinventing what a shelter can be — they’re not simply doubling capacity.
“We’re adding is the opportunity for expanded, enriched therapeutic programming and support services, as well as what I call ‘alternative pathways to healing,’” Collins said. “So art and activities, the salon, the computer library providing education, and a working classroom kitchen with job-readiness training. Those kinds of things are not traditionally thought of in the context of a homeless shelter, but I’m a believer that if we start having the conversation about how to invest in those with the least, to educate, to support, to provide access to tools and resources, then the outcomes are different.”
The five-story, 120,000 square foot facility comes with a $28 million pricetag financed through New Markets Tax Credits and private philanthropic dollars, including gifts from the Braman Family Charitable Foundation and the Micky and Madeleine Arison Family Foundation. Collins said that the organization’s decade-plus of institutional knowledge allowed them to outfit the space for their needs.
“We worked very closely with architects to design and program the space in the way that we would like it based on a decade of experience of operating and knowing exactly what we needed and wanted,” she said. The result, when it opens at the end of this year, could help shift the conversation about how to shelter the homeless.
“Now we have a chance to really break the cycle of homelessness,” Collins said. “So first and foremost, on a service level the village offers us the opportunity to really realize a vision we have had for a long time of providing a trauma-informed, holistic, and supportive environment that nurtures people to grow and to build safer lives for the future.”
Lima, who moved out in October of last year, is proof that Lotus House works—from the therapy and job training to the yoga and child care—in a way that other shelters could learn from. They welcome people in and treat them with the respect they deserve and help to end the heartbreaking cycle of homelessness.
“It was my home for two years,” she said. “My daughter was in love with Lotus House. They were amazing with her. I don’t have much money, but I have everybody. We come by to say hi at least once a week