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Protest mixes shacks, shame

On a street lined with ratty palm trees, liquor stores and garbage, a chubby, fresh-faced girl with long braids pulls an unattached door from the entrance of a wooden shack to reveal the inside.

"It's very simple," says the girl, who just turned 18. She says it with a touch of pride. "We're painting the doors, as you can see, and this is our little doormat." With her foot, she straightens a flattened cardboard box lying on the ground.

Welcome to Tanairis Pantoja's starter home.

Until a few weeks ago, Tanairis, who goes by Chi-Chi, and her boyfriend, Markus, had been sleeping on Miami Beach, in the shadow of the shiny new condos that line the ocean.

Then they heard from other people on the street about the shanty village that had just sprung up in Liberty City - where the homeless could eat for free and have a place of their own. They drifted inland, to one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods. It's a 6-mile drive, if they had a car.

The shack village is the brainchild of Max Rameau, an activist who saw a way to provide a needed service to the poor and at the same time shame the city into doing something it had failed to do - provide affordable housing.

Inside Chi-Chi's shack, which is the size of an average office cubicle, she points out her worldly belongings: shampoo, a garbage bag filled with shoes and a leopard print duffle bag.

"We're not planning to stay long," Chi-Chi says, breezily. "We've got plans. A house, kids, plans. The good life, you know? We can't stay here."

They may not have a choice.

Tired of waiting

Rameau, 37, picked the site for the shantytown with care.

The municipally owned property was once home to an affordable housing complex, but it was demolished years ago. New housing was supposed to be built on the property, but never was. The lot turned to weeds and then to drug deals.

Rameau, who lives within walking distance of the property, was already angry over the vacant lots, rising property values and rampant real estate speculation throughout the city. Then the Miami Herald revealed earlier this year that local housing officials had squandered millions of dollars earmarked for affordable housing.

The newspaper found that the Miami-Dade Housing Authority pledged to build 8,300 new homes for low-income residents at a cost of $87-million. The city completed only 2,600.

"This city and county are extremely corrupt," Rameau says. Tired of waiting for a new housing project, he built his own. On city land.

He was confident that an 8-year-old landmark legal case that allows the homeless to engage in "life-sustaining conduct" on public property would protect them from arrest.

Rameau and other activists started the shantytown - later named "Umoja," which means unity in Swahili - on Oct. 23. They scraped together some cash to buy the pallets, asked people for food donations and with the help of the homeless with construction skills, they built the first "pallet condos."

Five weeks later, Umoja is "built out," said Rameau, who works as a computer consultant and for nonprofits. He has 35 residents and like the developers of the downtown high-rises, he has a waiting list of prospective tenants.

Affordable for whom?

There's a cast of characters living there now, people who are down on money, jobs and luck. There's Gypsy Bird, a 52-year-old poet who looks 75, with his jaundiced eyes and arthritis and crack addiction. There's Troi Rosemond, a man in his mid 60s who has stomach cancer. There's Ronnie Holmes, a disabled 34-year-old with hard eyes and a love of the Bible.

The shacks at the shantytown are the only thing that many of the residents have owned in years, decades even. They hang out on sagging, stained couches arranged in a circle. The place smells like a campfire because they burn wood in a barrel and grill donated chicken daily.

Many of the shantytown residents are from Liberty City and are unfazed by the widespread poverty; census data reveals that half of the people in the neighborhood don't have high school diplomas. The median household income is $22,000 a year.

Even Liberty City homeownership is becoming out-of-reach for the working poor. Across the street from the shanty village sit three new duplexes. The cost: $320,000 for one, two-unit building.

"Maybe I won't own a home," said Ronald Atkins, 37, who was born in this neighborhood. Like many of the residents, he works some days. And like many of the residents he struggles with addiction every day.

"But I'd like to just have a key to my own place, a one-bedroom, affordable place."

While Miami has one of the highest median home prices in the nation ($372,000), it also has one of the nation's lowest median incomes ($33,000), so homeownership is out of the question for many.

Atkins and many others know the shantytown may not last forever, but for the time being it's better than any of the city's homeless shelters, which are overcrowded and filled with curfews and theft, making it difficult to keep a steady schedule or a job.

A looming threat

Rameau spends several hours at a stretch at the village, often with his infant son on his hip. He is the shantytown's de facto mayor, although he avoids such titles because, as he says, Umoja is a "new community model."

Rameau makes sure the basic needs of the people are being met. A cistern shower is working perfectly, and the portable toilet hasn't posed any problems.

In reality, Rameau is the liaison between the village and the city. At the same time he's chiding the city, he has a pressing problem with garbage collection that he wants the city to resolve. Meanwhile, he's toying with the idea of starting a second shantytown on another vacant, city-owned lot.

When he's not at the shantytown, Rameau is a guest on talk shows, presses for food and donations and writes a blog about life in the village vs. life in Miami.

"This is important because it shows the critical need in South Florida for low-income housing and the extent to which local governments are unresponsive to the needs of the people," Rameau wrote recently. "The needs of each and every developer are met upon arrival, yet the needs of the poor - especially in the black community - languish."

What Rameau doesn't acknowledge, at least not publicly, is this: The more he presses the city for a solution to the housing crisis, the greater the chance that officials will try to close the shantytown.

So far, the police have largely stayed away, a surprise to Rameau, who has been a harsh critic of the force.

But city officials have made regular visits.

On a recent afternoon, Miami City Manager Pedro Hernandez showed up, he said, on a mission to "listen."

"I recognize the problem and I agree with the end goal," said Hernandez.

Rameau shot back: "When are you planning on raiding us?"

Ominously, Hernandez didn't answer.