A ground-breaking ceremony will be Thursday for an innovative long-term housing complex in the Homestead area where the homeless will be able to live and work.
The proposed complex will have 145 units and will include a landscape/produce nursery and a fresh market retail complex, which will serve as a micro-enterprise for residents who can receive vocational training.
But the complex almost didn't get approved -- except that Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book ran into U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen three years ago when she was filming a message on homelessness and mental health.
She told him to call her if the trust needed help.
Book did just that.
The trust was facing a roadblock from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in its efforts to build the longer-term housing complex on 52 acres in the Homestead area.
'I said, `Hey, count me in.' Little did I know he'd put me to work so fast,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.
The complex was proposed to be built on land in the 84 acres the trust acquired in 1996 that was once part of the old Homestead Air Force Base, closed after 1992's Hurricane Andrew.
The site already houses the trust's 300-bed shorter-term residency homeless assistance center and Camillus veteran transitional housing that together house more than 500 people.
But the government has strict regulations on how to use the federal property and HHS had advised the trust that permanent housing was not permitted.
The congresswoman and her staff advocated on the trust's behalf for the federal agency to change its policy and allow for the creative, outside-the-box use of the land. Approval finally came in May.
''Federal law says you need to do this and that. It's hard to get through the no's,'' Lehtinen said. ``We were not going to let go and [we] finally got an exemption.''
She added she was glad to help struggling families who ``have problems like everyone else and just want a roof over their heads and normal lives.''
At Thursday's ground-breaking ceremony, the trust will honor Ros-Lehtinen with the Homeless Pioneer Award at the future site of the Homeless Trust Air Force Base Complex.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Homestead city officials are expected to attend the ceremony.
Book, a founding board member of the trust, which was established in 1993, said the congresswoman and her staffers were ``our agents for change.''
''It was a commitment by her and her staff to follow through and make things happen,'' Book said. ``We've not had another public official ever jump to the forefront on our behalf the way Congresswoman Lehtinen did.''
This ''is probably one of the most exciting aspects of the project,'' Book said.
The new complex will take the lifestyle of live, work and play in the same neighborhood to South Miami-Dade, he said.
The trust is now in a bid process for the project.
After plans are finalized construction will begin, Book said.
''We hope that some time in the next 12, 15, 18 months from now,'' the complex will be open, he added.
The Trust has set aside $15 million for the construction thanks to Better Communities General Obligation Bond and Homeless Trust funds.
Book said the trust has supported permanent housing facilities around the county but that this is the first permanent housing that it will operate entirely. It is probably the trust's biggest project, he said.
He emphasized that helping people find affordable housing is a critical component of the trust's mission to help the homeless stabilize their lives long-term.
And he's proud of the trust's progress.
When it first started there were 8,400 homeless on the streets in the county. Now there are 1,347 -- a much lower number than in many other cities, Book said.
''Others come to replicate because of the commitment we have,'' Book said. ``It's about providing services as well as a mechanism for permanent housing for people who have been homeless.
``This project is going to go a long way toward our continued efforts to solving homelessness in Miami-Dade County.''