When she was a young girl visiting New York City, Constance Collins came upon a homeless woman bundled up against the cold, digging through trash in a dumpster for food.
“I thought, ‘How can any one of us be happy when so many of us are suffering?’ ” she said.
Years later, when Collins was a high-powered real estate investment firm executive and attorney in Miami, she was inspecting a high-rise construction site when she came upon a homeless woman bathing in the building’s new fountain.
“I knew if I truly cared I had to act,” she said. “I would actually have to do something myself.”
She decided to build a homeless shelter for women. She quit her job and with her own money bought a dilapidated, 50-year-old, three-story apartment building in Overtown. Somehow, with her characteristic attention to detail, pink and periwinkle paint and art donated by an art collector friend, she made it homey, inviting. Women living on the street, fearful of shelters primarily occupied by men, sought out Collins’ safe space.
She named it Lotus House, “where hope blossoms.”
Since then, 34-bed Lotus House has been replaced by the 500-bed Lotus Village for women and children. The five-story complex on Northwest 15th Street is considered a national model given that 80 percent of its 1,550 guests in 2021 successfully exited the shelter system. The Village offers daycare, medical care, therapeutic care, job training and placement. There are parenting classes and art, music, yoga, meditation and gardening programs.
Collins is now expanding again. She and the Lotus Endowment Fund announced plans to build the $20 million, five-story Children’s Village a block away where Lotus can devote more space and staff to education, enrichment, therapy and counseling programs for youth staying at Lotus and living in Overtown.
“Our kids and moms have experienced the impacts of racism, gender-based violence, disparities in access to education, healthcare and social justice,” she said. “This is an opportunity to address those disparities and enable people to thrive.”
Collins, 63, never imagined how big Lotus would grow. There’s even a popular thrift shop. She points to her dedicated staff, her donors, her supporters in Miami and Lotus alumni who return to tell her about their college degrees, their jobs, their children, their homes. They point to her, her vision, her compassion, her one-on-one interactions, her mentorship and her genius for collaborative work.
Collins dislikes attention, deflects praise. Because of her past business success, she works as a full-time volunteer, taking no salary. She would tell you her life is richer today wearing sneakers and a pink Lotus Village T-shirt while counting diapers than it was wearing business suits and cutting multimillion-dollar commercial real estate deals. She would tell you “there is no greater gift than to be in the service of people who need help.”
Her approach to homelessness is typical of her no-nonsense style: “I remember when we walked on the moon. There is no problem we cannot solve.”
John Sumberg, vice chair of the Lotus board and a Miami attorney, met Collins when she transferred a client to his firm. He asked her what she was doing. When she said she was leaving her lucrative career to build a homeless shelter, he was swept away by her dynamism. He was struck by her idea of calling women “guests” and creating an art-filled environment where skills training would accompany mental health treatment and meditation classes. He immediately volunteered to handle the land acquisition and zoning applications.
“You could call her an idealist, but she’s made the Lotus approach work in the real world for the most vulnerable, underserved people,” Sumberg said. “It’s phenomenal to have the national leader in Miami. Thanks to Constance, her creativity and her commitment.”
When Sumberg first drove to the apartment building, “I told Constance, ‘This is going to be a disaster,’ ” he said.
“It was in horrible condition, the area was unsafe and the people in the neighborhood were skeptical, asking, ‘What does this white lady know?’ Nobody wants a homeless shelter nearby,” he said. “But she was right. She said everyone would see we were contributing something good to the community. And Lotus has really changed the neighborhood.”
Collins renovated a second apartment building and added mothers and children to the Lotus family. But when she proposed building Lotus Village for $25 million, there were pessimists again. Some said she’d never raise the money. She did.
She tapped her connections and enlisted local firms to do work for free — such as the architects at Behar Font, the engineers at m2e, the builders at Civic Construction, the lawyers at Bilzin Sumberg. She sought out Miami’s philanthropists and found new donors. She used her financing knowledge. The village was finished on time and on budget and was named the Urban Land Institute’s 2018 Project of the Year.
“So many cities think homelessness is an overwhelming problem that will take huge amounts of money to fix. But Constance has proven there is enough money to solve it,” said Martin Margulies, the developer and art collector who has been Lotus’ biggest benefactor. He and Collins were married briefly. They remain friends.
Collins is a hands-on leader, says her staff. It was her idea to conduct studies at Lotus Village comparing different types of parent-child and trauma therapies. She was appalled that no such research had been done with homeless children, so she contacted FIU psychology professor Paulo Graziano and offered Lotus Village as the perfect setting to do it.
“Constance was involved in every step, every sentence. She’s even an author on it,” Graziano said. “Sometimes we had disagreements — no, the data doesn’t say that so I can’t write that — but always in a good spirit of teamwork. Most shelters won’t cooperate on trials; it’s too chaotic or their clients don’t stay long enough. Constance understands how important it is to develop evidence-based treatment that works.”
Born in Detroit, Collins graduated from Trinity College in Connecticut and earned her law degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When she’s not at Lotus Village, she enjoys cycling, hiking, kayaking, beach-combing and “all things wilderness.”
She stays centered via her daily meditation practice, which “is my refuge and reminds me to rest on the firm ground of emptiness.”
Collins is driven by the hope of her guests and the generosity of Miami.
“I believe we exist to love,” she said. “Being in service, ending homelessness, supporting, nurturing and uplifting women and children is simply about love.”
Read more at: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article260813637.html#storylink=cpy