Construction delays are keeping hundreds out of a Broward homeless shelter
Broward County’s Central Homeless Assistance Center in Fort Lauderdale can house up to 230 people who would otherwise be living on the streets. Currently, only 34 women are allowed to live there.
There are no men. They've all been transferred to the only other county owned homeless shelter in Pompano Beach. Another 21 people were moved into extended-stay hotel rooms, paid for by the county.
Why is Broward keeping hundreds of people from living in the Fort Lauderdale shelter and not providing services to get them back on their feet? A renovation project that was supposed to take months has stretched on for more than a year due to construction delays and disputes with the builder.
The 34 women at the Fort Lauderdale shelter have been sharing what was described as a classroom or conference room with just two showers since construction began in July 2022. There are only two bathrooms in the room where the women sleep. Additional bathrooms are available in the lobby and lunch room, when it is unlocked, according to shelter residents who spoke with WLRN.
They did not want to be identified by name for fear shelter officials would no longer admit them to the facility.
“We have… women living in a conference room with a bathroom because they can't get into those rooms. And we have others that have been moved up to the north, which takes away space from the north,” said Broward Vice Mayor Nan Rich during an October county commission meeting where plumbing issues were discussed. “We have hundreds of people that we can't put into facilities.”
The Fort Lauderdale shelter residents of CHAC said they are thankful the shelter is staying open during the construction and prefer sleeping there to sleeping on the streets and in their cars.
Still, they said shelter employees encouraged them to wake up earlier — around 4 a.m. — to take showers if they needed to go to work. Other women who don’t work mornings are asked to shower at night.
“Sometimes they rush us to get in and out if other women are waiting,” one woman told WLRN.
Another woman told WLRN that she had an unexpected period and had to call a nurse to unlock a restroom outside of the sleeping area since those two were occupied.
“I was covered in blood,” she said.
Homeless in Broward
The Broward Partnership is a non-profit organization that operates the Fort Lauderdale shelter and the North Homeless Assistance Center in Pompano Beach. It’s also the largest homeless services provider in Broward County, according to its website.
WLRN emailed the Broward Partnership’s top two officials, Frances Esposito and Tom Campbell, as well as their public relations company, KIP Hunter Marketing, requesting a tour of the facility and interviews. Only a representative from KIP responded to questions by suggesting that WLRN direct all inquiries to Broward County.
According to public records reviewed by WLRN, the original construction project that was supposed to take months has instead gone on for more than a year.
The county owns the building while the Partnership is in charge of operations.
Esposito attended a Nov. 14 Broward County Commission meeting and was asked by a WLRN reporter for an interview. She declined.
WLRN also sent a list of questions regarding the shelter’s operations to Esposito and their public relations company and did not respond.
Repairs at Fort Lauderdale shelter
The Fort Lauderdale shelter repairs began last year, forcing staff to operate at “limited capacity,” meaning new female clients are only allowed in if another female leaves.
The shelter is equipped — when fully operational — with 230 beds for men, women, and children, according to the Partnership’s website. The Pompano facility, meanwhile, is equipped with 268 beds.
Demand for a shelter bed far outstrips the supply.
County data shows that almost 200 families each month are homeless and on the community’s waiting list for shelter. According to the 2022 Point in Time Count there are about 2,054 persons experiencing homelessness in Broward County — more than 1,200 of them are living without shelter.
The annual count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and helps determine the county's allocation of federal funding dollars. It is often a low estimate, say advocates.
Since 1999, more than 25,900 people experiencing homelessness have received assistance from the Broward Partnership. The Partnership uses a model of care that has been recognized to be among the most effective in the country, according to their website.
“The express focus of [homeless assistance] programs are to rapidly transition clients to a stable housing situation and to provide specialized services to ensure housing stability,” the organization’s website states. Services include case management, nutritious meals, child care, healthcare, mental health and substance abuse treatment, education, housing navigation, vocational training and employment services.
More than half of the Partnership’s funding comes from government grants and contracts. The remainder comes from private corporations, charitable foundations, special events and individuals.
The county hired HE Builders to renovate the shelter’s bathrooms in July 2022. Construction work was paused between September and November 2022, when the company found “unforeseen conditions” including extensive water damage to wall structure and finishes at the site.
The county hired a separate, specialty contractor to handle those repairs — pushing the project back four months and making it more expensive than initially thought for HE Builders. On three separate occasions, HE Builders stopped working because of disputes over how much they should get paid for the extra work.
In January, the county issued a change order, allowing themselves to spend more money on the renovations.
The county approved the $250,000 increase to the project’s budget, putting the total budget for the project at $2,426,000.
In May, the county said, HE Builders started to understaff the project — causing delays. Residents WLRN spoke with said they had sometimes seen less than 5 people working on the building during the day.
The county moved to get rid of the contractors on May 25.
“HE Builders continues to fail to perform the work in accordance with the approved project schedule and contract time and to suitably perform the work and provide the proper staffing to ensure its prompt completion,” a letter sent to HE Builders read.
A former shelter resident said he was living at the Fort Lauderdale shelter until he was moved north to the Pompano shelter in June.
“You had probably 40 men and you only had two toilets that worked,” he said. “You had like eight sinks and out of those sinks, maybe three of them worked.”
He has since found permanent housing.
Despite the delays and disputes, the county kept HE Builders on as they saw improvements. In a July email, one county official wrote in an email that “HE Builders has been on site, full force.”
According to another July email sent by Ariadna Musarra, the county’s director of construction management, “HE Builders has picked up the work effort and there has been great presence on site.”
HE Builders had complained, however, about not being paid, according to the email exchange with county officials. But the company failed to check their mailbox where three paychecks were sent, per public records.
An attorney for HE Builders said that the county’s changes were delaying the work — not the contractors.
The county, fed up with delays, ultimately fired HE Builders on Sept. 12, 2023.
Who’s at fault?
The county then rehired HE Builders along with a general contractor who would oversee the project. Finding a new company would have taken even longer and caused more delays.
“They hired a separate contractor to oversee the construction and retained the contractor that was terminated because that would be the most expeditious way to get this facility open, at least the Phase One of the facility,“ Michael Kerr, a county attorney who has been close to the project, told Broward commissioners at a Oct. 24 meeting.
On Nov. 1, officials reported that the project passed fire and electrical inspections, but failed the mechanical inspection.
A week later both mechanical and plumbing inspections were pending while staff continued working with the Fort Lauderdale Building Department to expedite pending inspections.
WLRN requested interviews with Musarra and Pam Sanguino, a county employee who is overseeing the project, and were denied.
According to public records, the county has hired a new contractor to finish phase two and three of the renovations.
In an email sent to Commissioner Rich on Wednesday Nov. 15 from Musarra, “the anticipated time for Phase 1 completion is in approximately three weeks from today, pending Building Department final approvals.”