How ‘navigators’ help Broward’s homeless find a place to live

Michael Sturrup parks his car in front of an apartment complex just north of the Dorsey Riverbend neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale. He’s checking in on one of his clients, Donolyn Williams, a disabled 63-year-old woman who had been homeless for about three years.

Her new apartment has a ramp for her walker — one Sturrup got installed. He hands her three Publix gift cards for groceries and other household items she’ll need for her new home — a shower curtain and broom are among her top priorities.

Sturrup is one of two “housing navigators” in Broward County’s Housing Options, Solutions and Support Division. His job is to help people like Williams to find a place to live.

He’s currently trying to find housing for 20 clients, his usual caseload is 15.

His clients face huge obstacles because Broward ranks as one of the most expensive rental markets in the country.

Discrimination, resistant landlords and an extreme shortage of affordable housing make it even harder to secure a home, especially for the county’s estimated 2,000 homeless individuals, according to Sturrup.

The affordable housing crisis in Broward is well documented. A housing study commissioned by the county last fall found that 94% of Broward residents cannot afford the current median sale price — $590,000 — of a single-family home.

It found the county — through market appreciation — had been losing an average of 15,711 affordable owner units and 9,602 affordable renter units per year over the past five years. The average rent: more than $2,500. It ranged from $2,109 for an efficiency to nearly $3,300 for a three−bedroom unit.

A report released this month by RentCafe found there were 12 prospective renters competing for each available apartment in Broward. In Miami−Dade, it was even higher, with 20 for each vacancy.

Williams apartment is just under 500 square feet and sits in Fort Lauderdale’s Community Redevelopment Area. The CRA uses earmarked taxes to reinvest into the area and “eliminate slum and blighting conditions in the areas,” according to their website.

Williams’ rent is $1,500. She receives a housing voucher to pay her rent from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Finding housing — even with a federal housing voucher isn’t easy. That’s where Sturrup and his department step in.

“A lot of them were losing out on the use of the voucher because they didn’t have assistance navigating the housing search,” Sturrup told WLRN, noting that the vouchers expire if not used. “We’re sort of the liaison that helps them navigate housing. We speak on their behalf.”

Sturrup started as a part-time employee, then the county brought him on full-time and created a separate department for housing navigators.

He started searching for housing by cold calling landlords, who he said needed convincing.

“At first I was kind of skeptical about the whole thing,” said Macsner Cazimer, a property manager who was among the first to field Sturrup’s calls. “But I believe in giving people second chances, so I gave them a try.”

Other property managers told WLRN they had similar reactions when first approached by housing navigators but now recommend the program.

Sometimes the clients Sturrup works with have arrest records or have been addicted to drugs.

The county knows this is a tough sell to most property owners, so they offer incentives and reassurances — they give landlords first and last month’s rent as well as a security deposit. They also guarantee on-time payments and screen the clients through background checks.

They also provide client’s with a case manager, who helps both the client and landlord as they adjust to permanent housing.

“They let me know that they would be there proverbially to hold my hand throughout the process. When we were explained that there would be case management and that they were there after the initial rent process, that’s what made us feel more comfortable,” said George Maniatopoulos, a property manager who has housed about 40 people through the county program.

“I was born and raised in Queensbridge, in the projects, and my family is a recipient of New York City Housing Authority and Section 8 vouchers. I understand what it feels like to be on the other side,” Maniatopoulos told WLRN.

Other landlords echoed Maniatopoulos.

“I’m a first generation immigrant and I definitely had my share of sleeping in the car or sleeping under the bridge,” said Jesus Petroccini.”There were people in my life that gave me somewhere to sleep, and those things stick to you. And maybe now I’m in a position where I could help.”

“You treat people the way you want to be treated, because not every time in my life, I had the means to pay my rent. And I remember those times,” said Jorge Lavayen.

“I come from a very poor background and I remember my mother struggling to pay rent and the landlord knocking on doors,” said Macsner Cazimer. “I can relate to these people because they don’t get chances.”

Before Sturrup came along, Donolyn Williams was sleeping on benches near Las Olas Boulevard or in front of the Salvation Army store on Broward Boulevard before getting into a homeless shelter.

She spent almost three years living at a county-owned shelter.

“Living in a shelter, I haven’t got to see my kids because they live on the other side of Florida,” Williams told WLRN. “I have a grandson who is two years old. I haven’t met him yet.”

Williams, who has been in her new apartment for about a month, said she will soon get to meet her grandson soon.

Sturrup said he feels like “he’s changing lives.”

“Because if you can just imagine someone going from that point in their life to a point to where ‘I can lock my own door, this is mine. I can build here, I can grow here. This is the grounds for me to rebuild my family, you know, rebuild my life,’” he said.

Sturrup said the lack of shelters makes his job even more difficult. There about 2,000 homeless in Broward but the county’s existing shelters can house just under 600 people. Earlier this year, many cities rejected Broward County plans for a new homeless shelter.

“If they don’t have case management services, which are often provided in a shelter, then it’s harder for me to be in contact with them,” Sturrup said.

The county is also working on project Home Again, aimed at getting more landlords to sign up for a private multi-site listing service.

The MLS allows housing navigators like Sturrup to find landlords who are willing to house homeless people who receive federal housing vouchers. The county offers cash incentives for landlords who sign up for the MLS.

Sturrup says the more landlords that sign up for the program, the easier it is to get people off the streets and out of shelters.

For Williams, the county’s housing navigator program has has changed her life. When she spoke with WLRN she had only been in her new home for a couple of days.

“Oh, my gosh. It feels like heaven. It really feels like heaven. I had to get up and I would look around and I would be like, is this my own space? I’d be like, thank you Jesus. Thank you.”

To learn more about housing navigators and Broward County’s Housing Options, Solutions and Support Division, visit

By Gerard Albert III,