carol_thomas_web.jpgFlorida International University

MIAMI — A computer lab where Liberty Square housing project residents can look for work and learn how to create their own businesses may close for lack of financing.

Lab staff members are working for free to keep it open, but if new money isn’t found, they’ll have to shut it down.

That would mean that Liberty Square residents such as Carol Thomas, who lost her job a month ago, will find it harder to manage her job searches and unemployment benefits.

Thomas, 56, was an aide at a facility for about-to-be-released inmates at federal prisons, where she helped inmates find jobs.

She came to the Liberty Square Assistance Center looking for the kind of assistance she used to provide.

“I do all of that here because I don’t have a computer at home,” she said.

Created in 2006 after a wave of violence hit Liberty Square, the center was an initiative of the Liberty Square Resident Council aimed at providing an educational environment for residents' children.

Financed by a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development, it initially contained 16 computers with Internet access.

“We prefer to have them here because it’s safer,” said Eric Thomson, the center's business coordinator.

The initial grant expired in 2008, but another Justice Department program kept the lab going through last year.

The Black Economic Development Coalition, a Miami-Dade County nonprofit offering technical assistance and loans to small businesses, picked up the cost of the lab and five employees through its Tools for Change program, using the facility for a pilot project intended to help residents find jobs and teach business skills with  workshops on accounting, record keeping and doing business with the government.

“We have 27 people graduated from our business class,” Thomson said, adding that four graduates now own their own businesses.

But that money ran out in May.

“The activities increased and the funding decreased,” said Thomson.

Center employees have worked as volunteers since then, as the Black Economic Development Coalition seeks funding from the county or private sources.

Byron Johnson, 22, is one of the more than 750 residents who use the computer lab and business assistance center every month.

He has a computer at home but prefers applying for jobs in the center.

“I come here because it’s quieter and quicker,” said Johnson.

Contact Erick Lappin at

Photo: Carol Thomas