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Grief to Hope PDF Print E-mail
Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
October 2016

A tragedy downtown catalyzes neighbors into making their community better

OPix_EleazarMelendez_10-16n Wednesday morning, September 7, Thomas Lang and his partner, Steve Dutton, were walking from breakfast on Flagler Street when they spotted a panhandler across the street with a known history of harassing passers-by.

Dutton later told authorities that he took a photo of the man, who was aggressive, belligerent, and cursing, to turn over to police. The panhandler, Evans Celestin, became enraged and ran across the street to attack the couple. He shoved Lang to the pavement near NE 3rd Avenue and Flagler, police records show.

Lang hit his head on the ground, was rushed to the hospital, and passed away from his injuries three days later. Celestin is in jail, awaiting trial on a second-degree murder charge.

It was an unusual and terrible tragedy. But as noteworthy as the event itself, what has happened since makes the story unique. It’s about Steve Dutton, a remarkable Miamian who is now determined to move on from that senseless violence and make our city better.

Dutton and Lang, a retired banker, were both from Fort Worth and had moved into downtown Miami in 2012. They were enjoying life in retirement; with the Port of Miami in their backyard, they were traveling the world.

“We thought it would be too hot and humid,” Dutton said in an interview with Biscayne Times, “but when we ended up here in 2012, we fell in love with all that was going on downtown, the vibrancy and the movement.”

The couple spent months traveling the world together over the past few years. Now, with that life taken from him, Dutton might understandably be bitter. Yet in what must be a coincidence of cosmic proportions, Dutton has dealt with homeless issues for a large swath of his adult life.

Back in Fort Worth, Dutton had served for 16 years as executive director of Samaritan House, an organization that provides low-cost housing, meals, counseling, and other support for individuals and families with HIV and AIDS. He also served as CEO of the city’s Mental Health Housing Development.

With preternatural calm and a great sense of empathy for the homeless, Dutton is now speaking of how he is going to use this event to turn around the wider disaster in his neighborhood.

“Unfortunately, I think what’s happening is that the community has become somewhat accepting of the situation with the homeless living in our parks, behind the Macy’s, and sitting around all day,” he says. “That acceptance can’t continue -- it’s going to defeat the city’s effort to redevelop, to reach its potential. And it hurts the homeless too.

“My goal,” he adds, “now that Tom has died as a result of this problem, is to really educate everyone -- the business leaders and the residents -- that they don’t have to accept this. This tragedy has led me to believe that I can be a spearhead in helping Miami change its attitude.”

Dutton is already meeting with community and corporate leaders to make that goal into a reality.

Dutton’s mission is dovetailing nicely with a downtown community that seems to be finding its own voice. Development over the past few years has meant an influx of thousands of residents into downtown Miami and Brickell. But new neighbors don’t seem to have rallied yet around any kind of cohesive leadership. Advocacy for downtown interests has occurred in fits and starts.

Amal Solh Kabbani, the new president of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance (DNA), is working to change that. She came into DNA with a big vision that almost didn’t even get a chance to take off. After the municipal election last year, she explains, the organization took such a low profile, it saw itself in jeopardy of folding.

“With Brickell booming with the way it was booming,” she says, “at some point there was an idea of maybe just folding with Brickell [Homeowners’ Association].”

Instead, Kabbani hit the streets to tell people about her organization, what it planned to do, and how it planned to get there. A meeting earlier this month at the 50 Biscayne Boulevard condominium brought together dozens of residents to bring downtown concerns before three city commissioners. (My boss, Commissioner Ken Russell, was in attendance, as were Commissioners Francis Suarez and Frank Carollo.)

Managing traffic, improving quality of life, and providing more cultural recreational events are big items on the agenda. But those issues have been set aside for now, Kabbani says, with a noticeable spike over the past few months in the downtown homeless population, coupled with Lang’s death.

“We’ve been going through waves of up and downs,” she notes. “The homelessness issue has definitely bubbled up.”

Cristina Palomo is also a member of DNA and is tackling the issue of organizing residents to address the homeless crisis in the City of Miami.

“I think the challenge is that a lot of homeowners are not local and they might not be involved,” she says. But with the urgency of the moment, she’s been amazed at how many people have come forward to help.

Following the meeting with downtown residents and city commissioners, Palomo and several others showed up at Miami City Hall to talk about homelessness, advocating for solutions that would help improve the safety and cleanliness of their neighborhood. The city commission allocated additional funds for lighting, cleaning crews, the power washing of downtown sidewalks, homeless outreach, and emergency rehousing.

“I feel we’re building a general awareness in the area and a sense of empowerment that this is not falling on deaf ears,” Palomo says.

Harkening back to the tragedy that took Lang’s life, she adds: “I think if nothing else, I have felt very at peace with the fact this is being done for our kids, our neighbors, and also for the memory of a very good person.”

That is, of course, Dutton’s goal as well.

Dutton says he remembers a tornado that hit Fort Worth’s central business district when he was working with that city’s downtown development authority.

“The city realized -- just like they’re going to realize here -- that there’s hope,” Dutton says. “That tornado cleared out the feeling of abandonment, the feeling of despair. We can do that here, but the people who live and work in downtown need to get involved.”

“What’s happening to me in my life, with my husband’s death, is a rallying call to improve the rest of my life here,” Dutton adds. “I’m tired of crying. I want the city to feel the joy that I feel, of knowing where we’ll be in the end.”

 

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