Lotus Village, a Miami homeless shelter that feels like home, set for ambitious expansion
By Linda Robertson
May 4, 2022
Lotus House began as one woman’s personal mission to rescue women who had nowhere else to go. Back in 2006, there were just 34 beds in a decrepit Overtown apartment building that founder Constance Collins bought and renovated with her own money. It didn’t look or operate like a homeless shelter. For those who came to the doorstep desperate, scared and hungry, it felt like a home.
Since then, Lotus House has grown into Lotus Village, a five-story complex on Northwest 15th Street with 500 beds for women and children. Now, she and the nonprofit Lotus Endowment Fund have announced plans for another expansion with the construction of a new five-story Children’s Village focused on education and mental health. They aim to raise $20 million to build it. Collins’ revolutionary philosophy hasn’t changed. She’s always been committed to an audacious goal: The elimination of homelessness.
At Lotus Village, those seeking refuge are called guests, because here, there are no homeless people, only people experiencing homelessness — a temporary setback. Here, nobody sleeps on the floor. There’s a family room and a playroom and a playground and a library full of books and computers. There’s a meditation, yoga and dance room, next to the Zen garden. There’s an arts and activities lab for painting, crafting and ceramics. Walls and spaces are adorned with world-class art and sculptures, donated by a preeminent collector. There’s a hydroponic farm, where kids and their mothers harvest vegetables, herbs and lettuce used in the kitchen, which serves 365,000 made-from-scratch meals per year. All of that makes Lotus Village different, but so does this even more critical measure of success: Collins cites an impressive exit rate of 80 percent. Of the 9,000 people who have stayed at Lotus Village, 7,200 have left the shelter system and made a home of their own.
Given that impact on so many lives and the surrounding community, Collins has adopted an even more audacious goal: The prevention of homelessness.
The majority of homeless adults experienced episodes of homelessness as children, research shows. Collins wants to break that intergenerational cycle. Her belief is that it can stop if children receive the therapeutic and educational support they need to overcome the trauma and stress they have endured. “We can change the direction of their lives at the most formative stage,” Collins said. “We’re investing in their future and the future of Miami.” The Children’s Village will fill a gap in the Lotus Village continuum of care — for kids from age 3 to 18, preschool through high school. Collins realized during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many kids were not attending in-person school but were essentially home-schooled at Lotus, that Lotus was not equipped to address the needs of kids beyond daycare age. Lotus needed more space, more programs, more staff. The Children’s Village will be the next step in the evolution of the original Lotus House.
A CAREER SHIFT FRIENDS CALLED CRAZY
It started 15 years ago when Collins, 63, gave up a lucrative career as a real estate investment company executive and attorney to buy a rundown building in Overtown. Her friends called her crazy. She chose the name Lotus and the motto “where hope blossoms” because she was inspired by the spirit of hope that flourished in her guests despite their hopeless circumstances.
“Our mission is to heal, strengthen and uplift,” said Collins, a full-time volunteer. “These women and children have suffered unimaginable terror and deprivation, and struggled to survive as invisible members of our society. “We’re giving them the resources and compassion they need in a safe, shared community to rebuild their lives and recapture their aspirations.”
Lotus Village, which opened in 2018, is the largest shelter in the country dedicated to women and children. Inside, the vibe is welcoming and the design is anti-institutional. There’s a serenity zone. There’s a health clinic and a wellness center with daycare classrooms and therapy offices. A recording studio, where kids made a “Wash Your Hands” video that went viral during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Healing Hands Salon, “where, coming off the streets, everyone can feel human again,” said stylist Scarlett E. Miller, who teaches classes on skin, hair and nail care. There’s a clothing closet and baby supplies; Lotus Village goes through 100,000 diapers per year. Lots of strollers in the halls.
“How are you?” said one mom greeting another with twins. “Blessed,” she replied. At the farm, located inside a freight container, kids learn gardening skills. “Is this science?” asked a first-grader planting seeds with tweezers. “Yes, this is science,” said Jackie Roth, director of innovation and programming, explaining how arugula grows.
MORE THAN A HALF-MILLION HOMELESS IN U.S. PER NIGHT
On any given night, the homeless population in the United States is about 580,000, according to the most recent full point-in-time census by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Estimates vary depending on methodology, but another count by the National Homelessness Law Center reports that 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness in a year. Seventy percent of homeless Americans are individuals and 30 percent are people living in families with children. In Miami-Dade County, about 3,355 people are homeless, according to the county’s Homeless Trust census on Aug. 19, 2021.
The affordable housing crisis — Miami surpassed New York this year as the most expensive market for renters or buyers relative to income — as well as increased rates of domestic violence during the pandemic drove the number of people seeking assistance at Lotus Village higher than ever, Collins said. In 2021, the village sheltered 1,550 people. It’s up to 800 through the first third of 2022.
“Homelessness is an intractable problem if we convince ourselves it’s an intractable problem and lack the will to solve it,” she said. “What isn’t effective is clinging to stereotypes, then giving those with the least the least and blaming them when it doesn’t work. We’ve created a standard of care that actually works.”
IT TAKES TIME TO REBUILD A LIFE
What works at Lotus Village is time: The average stay is six months. Some guests stay up to a year. Many shelters that are chronically short of beds operate as revolving doors. According to HUD, 60 percent of people stay less than a month and 33 percent stay less than a week.
“You can’t heal in a rush, you can’t heal putting a Band-Aid on a deep wound,” Collins said. “You can’t treat children like baggage in tow. You need sanctuary, your own bed, time to reflect. Think about losing your home. How do you even begin to recover? It’s complicated.”
Repeated exposure to trauma — violence, sexual abuse, neglect, addiction, crime, bullying, separation from a parent, death of a relative, friend or neighbor, homelessness — has a cumulative effect that drains resilience, and 75 percent of children cannot put it behind them without therapy, said Florida International University psychology professor Paulo Graziano, who has conducted groundbreaking studies at Lotus Village. Unresolved trauma can lead to cognitive impairment, mental illness, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships and violent behavior.
“It’s easier to build a strong child than to repair a broken grownup,” said Georgette Madison, 35, a Lotus House alumna. She was homeless as a child with her siblings in Little Haiti, sneaking into a school at night to sleep, eating food out of dumpsters. She found herself homeless again as an adult. Fleeing domestic violence with her 6-year-old daughter, she got their lives back on track at Lotus, where she now works as director of guest services.
“Children need to process the pain, fear and shame so that they are not carrying around anger and frustration that can wreck you forever,” Madison said. “Imagine a child always seeing mom get beat up. Our kids have to navigate this world with self-belief and self-confidence, not feeling like they have to hide or fight.”
Madison praised the therapy sessions she and her daughter Alana Johnson had at Lotus, and the tutoring her daughter received. She showed a photo of her daughter’s straight-A report card on her phone. “I remember my childhood being out of control, uncertainty from day to day,” she said. “Kids need routine and stability to thrive.” Sharonee Delevante arrived at Lotus Village “big and pregnant and on the run from a dangerous domestic violence situation.” Today, she and her 3-year-old son, Jonathan Jackson Jr., live in Little Havana and she is the Village’s operations director.
“That was not my first shelter experience. There is nothing like Lotus out there,” she said. “I needed Lotus badly and they welcomed me with open arms. It gave me everything I needed for my baby and then I was able to put him in daycare so I could get a job.”
LAND FOR CHILDREN’S VILLAGE BOUGHT
The Lotus Endowment Fund, of which Collins is president, purchased five lots a block south on Northwest 14th Terrace for $3.5 million where the 75,000-square-foot Children’s Village will be built to collaborate with other community organizations to serve not only Lotus Village guests but also children from the surrounding neighborhood. A capital campaign is underway to raise $20 million.
The building — which will feature exterior digital screens projecting photos of children — will have rooms for vocational education to supplement the training that takes place at Lotus Village and its thrift shop on Northwest Seventh Avenue for people who want jobs in the retail, culinary, barista, hospitality, child care or security fields.
There will be rooms for after-school care, homework, tutoring, art, music, creative writing, computer learning. A much larger outdoor playground. There will be offices for social service agencies, nurses and what Collins says is the largest team of child and family therapists in the country — 18 professionals trained to address the needs of homeless people.
Therapy is at the core of the Lotus healing strategy. When Collins discovered that no substantive research had been done on what she calls the “forgotten population” of homeless children, she asked Professor Graziano at FIU to use Lotus Village as a real-world, real-time laboratory to study which treatments are most effective.
“We want kids to play again and not worry about if they’re going to eat, where they’re going to sleep, if mom is safe from harm,” Collins said. “One day at intake, a little boy was holding his mother’s hand and she was crying. He said, ‘Please give my mom a bed tonight.’ ”
PIONEERING STUDIES AT LOTUS HOUSE
Graziano, director of the Center for Children and Families at FIU and an expert in early intervention, has been working with Lotus for five years. He conducted the first and largest trial in a shelter setting evaluating two parenting programs, with 144 children aged 18 months to 5 years.
His second study, involving 321 children aged 6 and up, involved 10 weeks of teaching coping skills that substantially reduced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms such as insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, irritability, sadness, jumpiness.
At Lotus, Graziano found serious behavior problems in 38 percent of the children (uncooperative, disruptive, impulsive, temper tantrums, hitting, biting, throwing toys) and developmental delays in 35 percent of the children (speech, toilet training, using a spoon, going to sleep). Both rates run four times higher than in the regular population. “We know that by age 3 if those behavior problems are not treated, they will affect school readiness, and the children will not do as well in class, they’re not following rules, the teacher doesn’t like them, they have an immediate negative attitude toward school, and a downward trajectory of academic issues gets set by second grade,” he said. “So we work on self-regulation, your ability to control your emotions and behavior, to listen and focus and learn. “Trauma is trickier to treat because the impairment gets worse as they get older but sometimes they are not ready to process it until they are teenagers.”
Graziano also teaches parenting skills to Lotus mothers who may have had a rough childhood. “Their reference points are not positive, so we want to reverse those habits and show them a different way,” he said. “If parents hit, then the kids are aggressive. If parents are negative, so are the kids.”
At one recent interactive session at Lotus, a therapist guided young mother Teresa Lopez, 19, as she played with son Darwin, 2. She was encouraged to describe to him how they were going to build a tower out of blocks together, to say his name, talk about colors, give positive reinforcement. Darwin, withdrawn at first, was soon building in tandem with his mom. They smiled and hugged. Graziano and Collins want to apply what they have learned and share it. Now that they have concrete data, they can tailor treatment and programming to be most effective. Graziano is preparing to embark on another study at Lotus Village, where — unlike at other shelters where he has inquired and been turned away — participation by guests is mandatory.
Collins has organized the National Women’s Shelter Network and is developing a database on which she plans to disseminate Graziano’s findings. The whole point of the network is to exchange ideas and find solutions. “Lotus Village has become the leading national model showcasing best practices that other shelters look to as an example,” said John Sumberg, a Miami attorney and vice chair of the Lotus board who has been involved with Collins from day one. “Lotus took a long-term, holistic approach to our most vulnerable people, not a holding-facility approach. And we’ve done it with innovative funding in a city without major corporate sponsors. If Miami can do it, Los Angeles and New York can do it.” CAN HELP COME CHEAPER? Cities and states cite cost as the biggest barrier to eliminating homelessness. Often they build more barracks-style shelters — unappealing because they are crowded and unsafe — instead of transitional or affordable housing. New York City, which has 60,000 people in its homeless population, spends $2 billion annually. California, with 160,000 people experiencing homelessness, spends $5 billion. Miami-Dade County’s Homeless Trust has a $66 million budget.
Collins wants to demonstrate how to pay for it more efficiently. Lotus Village, through its foundation, private donations and government grants, was built for $25 million and runs on a $10 million budget. Collins has become a master of fundraising, grant-writing and collaborating with other nonprofits. She’s persuaded local firms to lend expertise and manpower for free.
Martin Margulies, developer of luxury projects and the art collector who owns the Margulies Collection in Wynwood, has been Lotus’ biggest benefactor, donating $47 million, consulting on every detail of construction and contributing dozens of pieces from his collection to make the buildings feel warm and spark creativity. He sold two of his prized sculptures at auction to help purchase and renovate the second apartment building at Lotus House.
“I knew the money was going to the right place. It’s an exceptional place and you can see it,” said Margulies, delighted to watch young artists working in a room named after him. “Other cities say they don’t know what to do about homeless people on their streets. All they’ve got to do is ask Constance. We do have enough money in this country to solve homelessness. We need conviction and we need our politicians to step up.”
Investing in Lotus House makes economic sense, Collins said.
“The cost to the government and the taxpayer of not providing resources to those who are struggling is paid in other ways — through hospital bills, the judicial system, the school system, police and fire,” she said.
So far, the Children’s Village exists only on paper but Collins has already raised $1 million. So even as Lotus expands, Collins, always the visionary, can see the day when it will be empty. Or converted into permanent housing. “It is heartwarming and heart-wrenching to be in the presence of so many brave women and children,” Collins said. “I could not have imagined a greater gift than to be in the service of their healing and growth. Every day I come in and I’m surrounded by love. I may sound crazy but never underestimate what you can accomplish with the power of love.”
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