Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
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New law impacts old timer
City's anti-lodging law forces change

Michelangelo Giuseppe Peluso knows how to choose his battles.

This isn't some green recruit or cruise ship tourist. The white-whiskered Key West resident is a veteran of World War II, the aerospace industry and life on the open road inside his trusty Dodge van.

"I'm homeless; I don't have a home," said Peluso, 90, on Monday, taking a break from his workout at a Key West gym while his gold van waited for him in the parking lot. "My home is my 1977 Dodge Maxi Van."

So when the city of Key West made it illegal for him and anyone else to live in a vehicle parked on public land, he spoke out against it at a City Commission meeting. But when the law went through anyway, he accepted it.

"I said my piece," said Peluso. "I'm going to see if I can find other accommodations. That's the best way to put it."

Peluso began visiting the Florida Keys in 1972, starting with five-week vacations every year and then spending whole winters. He made Key West home after he recovered from open-heart surgery in 2007.

He didn't want his specific living plans printed in the daily newspaper.

But he recalled that a police officer approached him on Saturday night while he was in the van -- the doors open because of the heat -- and told him he was violating the new ordinance.

"It's not against the law to park on the streets of Key West, but I can't sleep in my van so I don't sleep in my van," Peluso said. "I park my vehicle and I don't sleep in my van."

The ordinance passed easily, 6-0, on June 5 with Mayor Craig Cates leading the way as part of his administration's promise to strengthen the island's laws related to the homeless population in the name of health, safety and tourism.

A second ordinance also passed 6-0 that outlaws anyone from using "makeshift shelters," like cardboard or tarps for camping within city limits.

The laws then took effect, having been carefully crafted and reviewed by the city's attorneys.

The mere act of sleeping in a public place isn't enough to constitute a violation of the camping laws, the ordinance states. There must also be indications of camping, such as "elements used for the purpose of sleeping or establishing a habitat."

Cates proposed the beefed up ordinances late last year but pulled them off the agenda to make sure they were clearly aimed at people using cars to live in, not just sleep off a booze-soaked night.

"We didn't want to have that you can't sleep in your car," said Cates. "Especially if somebody's been drinking. You would be allowed to do that and not drive."

Peluso was one of five men who spoke against the ordinance at the June 5 meeting.

"Let's talk about why people have to live in their vans," Kurt Wagner told the commissioners. "People have lost their jobs, then they lose their apartments or houses and they have nowhere to go. Where else are you going to go?"

When asked for his address, Wagner replied, "One-nine-nine-nine Dodge."

The anti "lodging in vehicles" ordinance has been tested in federal court, with the city of Clearwater emerging safe, said City Attorney Shawn Smith.

The key word is "lodging," Smith said.

"Lodging gives someone an idea that you can't make a makeshift shelter in a vehicle," he said.

Peluso candidly chatted about his travels and his home -- a 1977 Dodge Tradesman 300 van painted the color of pricey mustard and decorated with handmade signs that remind passersby of the American combat veteran's sacrifice.

"It's Harvest Gold," Peluso said of the hue. "I take very good care of it. I do the body work."

Peluso, Brooklyn-born and raised in "extreme West Philadelphia," said he rises daily before 6 a.m. for breakfast and then makes his rounds to the senior center on Truman Avenue and his New Town gym.

Key West people know the van from its usual perch near Higgs Beach and on side streets near the Casa Marina. His van sports square signs with slogans such as, "Don't Tread on Me," "Freedom Is Not Free" and "At Least I Know I'm Free."

Peluso was a battlefield medic in the U.S. Army, starting in September 1944 when he was 23.

"We don't talk about it," he said, when asked about the horrors of war. "We went through the Holocaust. We liberated 11 death camps. We were the 12th Armored Division of the U.S. Army. I don't talk about it."

Peluso is the second oldest of four siblings, and the sole surviving one. He had a daughter, Joanne Mildred who died of cancer at age 62, he said, and a son he has lost touch with.

"I'm by myself; I'm all alone," said Peluso. "I'm relatively happy. I would like to have a mate that lives like I do, but that's impossible."

Like the city amended its existing laws to zero in on banning "lodging in vehicles" and forms of camping, Peluso said he may have to amend his signs, particularly the "At Least I Know I'm Free" one.

"'Or am I?'" he said makes more sense in light of the new law. "You're making a criminal out of me because I sleep in my van, so I'm not free I'm 'reasonable.'"

When he went before the City Commission on June 5, Peluso made a levelheaded argument by quoting the law's language that says that tourism is the primary industry for Key West and that "the act of unlawful lodging or camping in vehicles have a significant negative impact on tourism and the environment."

Tourism isn't drying up because a few men live in their vans here, Peluso said.

"We had a great tourist season," said Peluso. "I don't know how sleeping in your vehicle has a negative impact on the tourist system."

Before stepping away from the podium, Peluso told them, "I have been visiting Key West for 37 years. I'll be 91 next month and I don't want to leave."

His final words to the powers that be:

"By the way, my hearing is shot. World War II."

Peluso received a round of applause and the mayor's compliment, "You did a good job," Cates said, before the panel voted in favor of the new law.

Peluso worked for more than 30 years as an engineer for Boeing helicopters, retiring in 1983. Soon after, he divided his time between Pennsylvania and Key West.

"Every April, I would leave and travel in my yellow van," he said. "I would get lost in North America. I've been from the Mexican border in San Diego up to North Pole, Alaska."

For now, he isn't planning on leaving the island. After all, it's his home.

And he makes clear that he's no loafer.

"I worked as a volunteer for the parks and recreation department for 20 years, cleaning up trash and planting trees," he said. "That was Indigenous Park."

The Harvest Gold Dodge will continue to grace the streets.

"I love this place," Peluso said Monday, standing outside his van. "I don't want to leave Key West."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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