Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Marlene Quaroni - Florida Catholic
NORTH MIAMI | Every week, a young person is shot to death in Miami-Dade County.
“When little kids are getting shot, it’s serious business,” said Msgr. Chanel Jeanty, archdiocesan chancellor, pastor of St. James Church in North Miami, and president of PACT (People Acting in Community Together).
“It’s going to take our community coming together to tackle these problems first-hand,” he told the group’s annual Nehemiah Action Assembly, held at New Birth Baptist Church March 14.
PACT is a grassroots group that advocates for the poor in Miami-Dade County on issues such as juvenile justice, school discipline and affordable housing. Members come from 40 houses of worship and represent more than 50,000 county residents. The assembly’s name comes from Nehemiah, governor of Judea in the fifth century B.C., who identified the problems of the people and brought together a great assembly to hold the nobles and rulers accountable for their practices.
“There is no simple solution to the problem of gun violence,” said Rev. Carrill Munnings of Ebenezer United Methodist Church after reading a list of names of children recently killed.
The assembly asked for commitments from public officials present at the meeting to help with injustices. Each official was given three minutes to respond and comment on issues.
Rabbi Gary Glickstein of Temple Beth Sholom said the assembly was not about crying, but using grassroots power to make a difference.
“Tonight, we make a PACT for?” asked the rabbi, and the audience responded “Justice!”
PACT is responsible for getting a Florida law passed that allows police to offer civil citations to youths who commit a second or third misdemeanor instead of giving them an arrest record. But not all police officers are required to do so. The organization is working toward having all police offer civil citations to youths in Florida, and on enrolling them in prevention programs instead.
PACT is also working to reduce out-of-school suspensions. After four years of work, it succeeded in getting Miami Dade public schools to eliminate those suspensions.
Instead, the school system has hired 50 new school counselors, expanded positive behavior support, and opened nine school “Success Centers” as alternative locations for students with serious offenses. PACT is asking for two more schools to be added.
Miami Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett was asked, “Will you support restorative justice practices by designating a participant in a bimonthly meeting until the pilot programs are implemented?”
“Yes,” he answered. “In 2005, we had about 15,000 children arrested in Miami-Dade County. In 2015, that number was reduced to 5,000. We’re doing great work with the civil citation program, by adding officers at our schools, working with our neighborhood resource officers from our partnering agencies, doing conflict resolution and peer mediation and other alternatives beyond arresting our youth.”
He said he was a big believer in what PACT is doing in the community. Other police chiefs and those who work with juvenile offenders in the county stepped forward to make commitments.
“Gun violence is a problem that we can’t arrest our way out of,” said Miami Gardens Police Chief Antonio G. Brooklen. “We recognize that our schools have a major role in our children’s lives. Our schools have an opportunity to teach our children conflict resolution.”
In addition to asking for commitments from public officials, those affected by each issue gave their testimony. Jennifer Lasso stepped up to the microphone to address the issue of affordable housing with examples from her own life.
“When I was born my mother worked as a kitchen aide making only $400 a month,” said Lasso. “Ten years after applying for a housing-choice voucher my mother finally received a voucher enabling us to move into a two-bedroom apartment.”
“The voucher gave us a stepping stone to our American dream,” she said. “It meant I would have my own room. When rents escalated and housing opportunities diminished we were able to remain in our neighborhood thanks to the Miami Beach Development Corporation. I was able to continue my education at Nautilus Middle School and Miami Beach High School.”
Access to affordable housing and other community resources, good schools and public transportation made a positive impact on her life, Lasso said. Now, after graduating from Florida State University, she is a recruiting specialist at the hospital where she was born.
“As a young independent professional I am now finding it hard to find an affordable apartment,” she said. “Wage levels do not meet the high cost of living in Miami-Dade County. Finding a one-bedroom apartment for under $1,300 is a miracle.”
Miami is one of the costliest cities for rent in the country, said Denis Russ, Temple Beth Sholom’s PACT representative.
“Construction is focused on building condo towers for wealthy foreigners, speculators, and seasonal second home owners,” said Russ. “The truth is we are facing an affordable housing crisis. Tonight, we call upon our county commissioners and mayor to address this housing crisis. Eight years ago the county formed an Affordable Housing Trust, however, it was never implemented. Funding and a board of trustees were never created. During the past year PACT has made progress toward implementing the housing trust.”
PACT called upon public officials to appoint the trustees by October 1 of this year and to fund it with $10 million from the upcoming budget.
Linda Adderly of Christ the King Catholic Church in Perrine asked Xavier Suarez, the first Miami-Dade commissioner to step up to the microphone, if he would support allocating $10 million annually from the general revenue fund for affordable housing, by October 1, 2017.“Yes, for sure,” he replied.
Adderly continued: “Will you work with the county mayor to ensure that a board of trustees is set up with adequate staffing and oversight by October 1, 2016?
“Absolutely, that’s an easy one,” Commissioner Suarez answered.
However, County Deputy Mayor Russell Benford answered no.
“Unfortunately, we have to make tough choices and public safety is one of the highest priorities,” he said. “The county manages 9,000 public housing units and has more than 20,000 affordable units through other voucher programs.”
Steve Horsford of St. Monica Catholic Church told the deputy mayor that a quarter million families also are making tough budget decisions because so much of their income goes for rent.
“We think affordable housing needs to take priority,” said Horsford.
PACT originated at St. Mary Cathedral in the 1980s, through the efforts of its then rector, the late Msgr. Gerard LaCerra. PACT is the largest, non-partisan, faith-based grassroots organization in Miami-Dade County.