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The son of a prosperous 18th century French shopkeeper, Benedict Joseph Labre rejected the cushy life of a merchant, practicing self-deprivation -- with a smile.

Labre spent his years as a pilgrim helping the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless. He was canonized as their patron saint in 1881.

City and county officials, principals from Biscayne Housing Group and Carlisle Development Group and Camillus House leaders have broken ground on the site of Labre Place, 350 NW Fourth St.

The $24 million project in Overtown will provide 90 one-bedroom apartments and supportive programs -- all for low-income and once-homeless folks.

The nine-story building will sit just west of Interstate 95 and across the street from Somerville Residences, a Camillus-run apartment complex housing formerly homeless families.

''I think a society best measures itself by the degree to which it helps those who are in need,'' said Camillus House President and CEO Paul Ahr.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and state Rep. Luis Garcia were among the dignitaries who attended the recent groundbreaking at the site.

Camillus House will funnel residents from its shelter to the project and provide services like drug treatment aftercare, therapy, job training and financial counseling. Once completed, Labre Place will be another cog in the ever-evolving Camillus House charity machine, which is expanding.

''We've been wanting to move out for 20 years,'' Bob Dickinson, its chairman, said of the group's current shelter on 726 NE First Ave. ''We couldn't get approved anywhere because few people want a homeless shelter close by,'' he added.

So Camillus and the University of Miami swapped lots on Northwest Seventh Avenue near the Civic Center medical complex.

The charity gets a lot, owned partly by the state and partly by the university, between 15th and 17th streets. When built, the new $70 million shelter will provide 340 beds, including 55 drug rehab beds.

''Our drug treatment program has an 85 percent success rate,'' Dickinson said.

UM gets a state-owned parcel, leased by Camillus, just north of the charity's new lot.

The school plans to build a new bioscience center there.

Labre Place is being financed through tax credits sold to Wachovia Bank, a construction loan from Bank of America and funds from a half-cent county transit surtax.

Facilities will include a community center, library, computer lab and laundry room.

Lloyd Boggio of Carlisle Development Group said that too often the failings of housing programs in the county overshadow the success stories.

''Between us, we've got several affordable-housing projects at different stages,'' Boggio said, motioning to himself and Michael Cox of Biscayne Housing Group.

''There's over 1,000 units with about $250 million in development costs. That translates to about two or three thousand jobs,'' he added.

During the ceremony, Cox told the crowd he is inspired by the staff of Camillus House.

''At a time when Florida is experiencing a recession, we're gonna put 300 people to work here,'' he said, adding that the project should be completed by December 2009.

Contents Under Pressure
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Nice to see that, kevin. I'm not down with those who think we should simply chase the homeless elsewhere (as if that's even a real possibility). Sure, there's some bad apples but most deserve to at least be treated as human beings with dignity. Sounds like a nice project.
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