Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Community Icon Plagued by Burglars"

Josh and I had the priveledge of meeting Georgia Ayers while filming Miami Noir. We tried to interview her twice at 151 NW 60th St. and both times blew the power in the entire building with our equipment. It's a huge building with great potential to be a wonderful facility. Unfortunately, we were never able to connect for a full interview. 

In the time spent with her, one could sense her passion and dedication. When discussing Arthur Teele, her tone changed. She spoke of him as son. We gathered that there was great mutual respect between the two; he did call her before his death.


Published in today's Miami Herald by Frances Robles

One of the oldest Baptist churches in the city of Miami has seen better days, such as the 1980s, when a killer religious sect ran a school there and slapped a fresh coat of paint on it.

For almost 15 years, longtime civic activist Georgia J. Ayers has used the Model City building just east of Interstate 95 for an at-risk youth program, spending millions of dollars in grants to renovate it with the quixotic ambition of opening a daycare center. Several funding grants and many years later, she’s got a boarded-up dilapidated place where plants grow out of the walls and burglars bust impact-resistant windows.

Thieves have looted it 10 times since July.

Miami cops are at a loss, Ayers vows not to give up, and the daycare that never opened is a hopeless entanglement of exposed pipes, smashed windows and half-installed sprinklers and air conditioners.
The Alternative Program Inc.’s plight underscores the challenges of urban development projects, where pipe dreams often crash against inner-city realities. The break-ins are the latest in a long string of misfortunes to befall the troubled program. The burglaries are just part of the myriad challenges — mostly financial — that have prevented one woman’s vision from ever becoming reality.

Ayers, one of the city’s most respected icons, an 83-year-old spitfire showing signs of wear, ultimately proved unable to surmount an onslaught of bureaucratic obstacles. The 48,000-square-foot facility at 151 NW 60th St. has a decades-long trail of code violations, burglary reports and government grants. Eventually the money ran out, employees were cut to part-time, their health insurance was eliminated, and hopes of establishing a community center were dashed.

“Nothing good comes easy,” Ayers said, indicating where burglars stole the phone off her desk.
They also swiped soda out of her refrigerator and broke 10 windows that cost $900 each. Burglars hit her office two days in a row last month, even with a police watch order in place and a decoy patrol car parked out front. Thousands of confidential files were stolen, as were the snacks and paper towels.
Determined to put an end to the break-ins, the elderly Ayers says she’s going to start sleeping there overnight. The woman who has dedicated her life to keeping criminals out of jail vows to confront the felons herself, and perhaps surprise them with a few rounds from an AK-47.

“I am going to shoot the s--- out of them,” she said. “I put barbed wire up, they take the barbed wire and tried to take the fence. I put bars on the windows; they break the bars.”

She needs a burglar alarm and round-the-clock surveillance, but has no way to pay for it. “I used to have fundraisers all the time, but now everyone is catching hell just like me,” she said. “What’s the point of going to the river if there is no water?”

If it’s not the intruders harassing Ayers, it’s the former devotees of the Temple of Love who post fliers saying they want their building back. “There were many of us helping to fix our poor areas. Then the troops came to take from the poor,” reads a poster signed by former Yahweh sect follower Nechamaw Sarai.

Cult leader Yahweh ben Yahweh bought the First Baptist Church property in 1985 for just shy of a million dollars. Pictures show it sported a fresh coat of white paint, even while the city slammed the Yahweh sect for a litany of code violations and operating a school without a permit.
Suspected in more than a dozen murders, Yahweh was convicted of conspiracy in federal court. He died in 2007 after serving 11 years in prison.

“The building was a wreck even then,” said former owner Frank Alter, who loaned Yahweh capital for the building, only to acquire it back when the sect fell behind on the mortgage. “I would never buy it, even with your money.”

In 1998, Alter sold it to Ayers’ Alternative Program, known as TAP, for $693,000.
“She was a very aggressive woman doing a thankless task in that community,” Alter recalls. “I never really liked her much; she didn’t understand why I didn’t just hand her the property for nothing, given what she planned to do with it. She was quite a fighter.”

Ayers founded TAP 30 years ago as a non-profit agency that offered a substitute to incarceration for non-violent offenders. It offered after-school programs for at-risk kids, and once had a school named after Janet Reno, the former state attorney and U.S. attorney general.

A politically connected activist in the black community, Ayers takes credit for community policing in the city. For years, she was the one people called to turn in fugitives and quell city riots. In 2005, she was the last person former Miami commissioner Arthur Teele called before committing suicide in the Miami Herald lobby.

She’s known for walking into court rooms and interrupting judges. When one circuit judge handling her grandson’s drug bust put a stop to her courtroom tirade, she showed up the next day with protest placards, accusing the judge of being a Nazi. She answers questions with anecdotes about when her grandson was murdered for stepping on someone’s foot, or the times back in the 1960s that she called police on her own son.

In 1999, then-congresswoman Carrie Meek got Ayers a $2.2 million federal grant to turn the run-down former church into a daycare center and community auditorium. It would have playgrounds and parking lots and include adjoining parcels of land.

County records show Ayers spent half a million to buy the building and $1 million on architects and contractors. Another half million went to salaries.

The parcels were never purchased, the parking lots didn’t work out and the work needed to certify the daycare center was never completed. The county estimates that she needs another $1 million to finish the job.

“It wasn’t enough [money]! I’ll tell anyone from the city or county that,” Ayers screamed, waving her brown walking stick. “I did this! I am it! I-T it! Put an S-H in front of that, and you get when I don’t take and I don’t give!”

According to county records, construction came to a halt in 2004, when Miami city inspectors disagreed with each other about the quality of the air conditioning work, and so the AC was torn out.
Some grant money was lost to lawsuits.

The county returned the grant’s last $83,000 to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with a simple note saying the agency’s work was “70 percent done” and the organization would seek other funding sources.

“They fixed the roof and tried to get the sprinklers installed, but it wasn’t finished,” said TAP fiscal officer Charles Briggs. “The elevator was started and not completed and the AC unit is on the roof, but not completed.”

Briggs said they agency has a severe “cash flow problem,” because the county grants it now gets to run programs are paid late.

The city of Miami paid for the roof and the new pricey windows, ultimately giving $220,000 to also cover cost overruns to renovate the daycare center that never got built. At a 2007 Miami city commission meeting, commissioner Marc Sarnoff questioned some of the funding, and asked Ayers how much she earned. She told him: $96,000 a year.

“I think there should be an audit to see what deliverables were required,” Sarnoff said last week. “We have to be somewhat protective with taxpayer dollars.”

Meanwhile, the non-profit ran $107,000 in county code enforcement fines for another property it owns.

“I thought that by now she would have a nice stable building,” Meek, the former congresswoman, said. “I tried to help her. She did all she could. She hasn’t gotten a lot of institutional support. She is a rare resource in this county and needs more support.”

Meek said Ayers should have lured more big-name philanthropists to her board of directors in an effort to acquire matching grants.

TAP came under fire earlier this year, when Ayers’ grandson, a TAP counselor, was arrested by Miami police for allegedly taking bribes from offenders who wanted to skip out on community service hours. The State Attorney’s office refused to press charges, saying Ayers’ contract with the county was so vague it was not clear what law her grandson broke, in part because it was unclear what services the organization is supposed to provide.

Former Miami Police chief Miguel Exposito accused State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle of dropping the case out of fear of taking on the politically connected Ayers.

“You think if I wasn’t a righteous person, the county would have given me this?” Ayers said, pointing out the I.D. card she wears around her neck daily, which gives her unfettered access to the jails.
On a day Ayers showed up without an appointment at the Miami Police north district station, Commander Manuel Morales joked that there are only three people for whom he drops what he’s doing: “my wife, the police chief and Ms. Ayers.”

Morales said he ordered a mandatory hourly check on her building, but says it remains the single highest crime location in his district — excluding 200-unit apartment buildings with multiple service calls.

“We’ve ID’d offenders, gotten blood from crime scenes, made arrests, gotten evidence, but in the meantime, she’s still getting hit,” he said. “It’s ironic, because she tries to give individuals who want the help, help.”
Photo courtesy of Miami Herald, Charles Trainor, Jr.


Anonymous said...

Georgia likes the old Miami names like Lemon City, Little River, Buena Vista...

Anonymous said...

Georgia Ayres hates that anyone would dare call her neighborhood Little Haiti. She has lived in Lemon City for over 80 years and she respects the historic names.