Life for William "Bill" Neece used to be hell.
The formerly prosperous businessman had succumbed to his bi-polar mental condition, and by the early 1990s was addicted to drugs, alcohol and gambling, and was living on the streets of Key West.
Friends and family had given up, and were waiting for word that Neece, ensnared by addiction and hopelessness, had died.
Then something truly wonderful happened.
"Some of our early Florida Keys Outreach Coalition (FKOC) volunteers got him to a psychiatrist," said the Rev. Stephen Braddock, who has been the coalition's president for the past 13 years. "They introduced him to [a 12-step program] and found him a place to live. They cleaned him up and got him a job."
As Neece began to recover, he was able to get a driver's license, and before long had started a tomato transportation business, supplying customers in Key West with produce from the fields of Homestead.
In an incredibly short period of time, Neece built his business into a multi-state, multi-million dollar concern, called Sun Rich America. He was on his way to re-earning his fortune, and eventually retired, a wealthy man, to Marco Island.
But he never forgot his Key West benefactors.
"As his business became profitable, he started sending us checks," said Braddock. "He gave us $2,000 per week, $104,000 per year, which enabled us, in 1998, to secure a matching grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). With that money we bought a house on Flagler Avenue, which we then turned into a 16-bed facility for homeless men."
Thanks in part to the real estate boom of the early '00s, the coalition was able to sell that property for a tidy profit, and purchase the larger, centrally located building on Patterson Avenue, which is also home to one of the coalition's two food pantries. (The other pantry can be found at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, on Center Street.)
Ten years ago Friday, a ribbon-cutting officially opened the Neece Center, and it become the new point of entry into the system of help offered to homeless men through the Outreach Coalition.
This milestone will be marked during the FKOC's annual meeting on April 17 at the Neece Center, which will also see the election of the board of directors, and a luncheon.
During the dedication for the center, back in '03, Neece, who was in attendance, was awarded the key to the city, by then-Mayor Jimmy Weekley.
These days Neece is in ill health and difficult to get ahold of, but Braddock remembers what a special moment the opening of the center was for all involved with the project.
"That was quite a moment, because 2003 was when the Florida Keys homeless population was at an all-time high of about 2,000," Braddock said. "We had encampments on the Bridle Path, and all over the place. [Assistant City Manager] John Jones was labeling the homeless a chronic public nuisance. And then, here we had the mayor presenting the key to the city to a formerly homeless person, one who has done more than anybody to help the cause of the homeless in Key West. It was an amazing thing."
When a homeless person first walks through the doors of the Neece Center, he is met by a staff member, who used to be homeless themselves, and processed.
The facility contains 20 bunk-style beds, as well as shower, laundry and cooking facilities. Clients are given toiletries, food and clothing, and a chance to reboot their lives.
They are given a place to sleep, chores to do, and are expected to go out into society and find work, so they can pay board of $85 per week.
Drugs and alcohol are forbidden, obviously, and clients are expected to attend a 12-step recovery program daily, some of which are held on the premises.
A bright, airy common room is home to a TV and DVD player, and computers with Internet access, to assist in job hunting.
"Many of our clients go to work in restaurants, or on construction sites," said Neece Center Program Manager Chris Welts, who himself just celebrated 10 years of sobriety. "We counsel them to discover where they went wrong with their lives. My feeling is that not everyone here is recovering from drugs and alcohol, but they are recovering from being homeless. We offer a very, very structured environment here."
After about four to six weeks, successful clients may be moved to the other FKOC facilities on the old Poinciana Navy housing grounds on Duck Avenue, Sunshine House, (where they are given new privileges, such as their own room - with a lock on the door,) and Sunrich House, which is named for the produce shipping company Neece founded after cleaning up.
The Nancy Russell Center, aka Sunlight House, and the Sunflower House, are designated for women, women with children, and families, and are also located at the Poinciana housing complex. (The women who live there enter the system through Samuel's House, or the Florida Keys Domestic Abuse Shelter.) In total, the FKOC provides lodging for 122 people.
Four new units, two for intact families, and two for disabled elderly persons, are currently planned for the same location, and should be completed by July.
Jimmy Weekley, now a city commissioner, is still supportive of the center, and remains inspired by Neece's story.
"There have been a lot of successes that have come through there," said Weekley, who has himself given employment at his family grocery business, to several Neece clients. "Neece has set a legacy for himself, and really turned his life around. It shows what people, given the opportunity, can do with their lives. His is a remarkable story. Homeless doesn't need to mean helpless."
The Rev. Braddock is pleased to mark the center's 10-year anniversary.
"Ten years ago, we were already in our 11th year, and we were growing as an organization," Braddock said. "But had it not been for Mr. Neece, I don't think the coalition would be anywhere near where it is right now. We owe him a great debt."