The city's first public workshop over where to move the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS) is set for Wednesday night, two days before the annual homeless memorial service held at the historic cemetery.
Key West's political argument over the homeless practically collides with this year's record number of late impoverished individuals, 64, who will receive cremation services paid for by the county and a funeral provided by a local nonprofit.
In 2012, the number remembered at the ceremony was 53.
This year's death toll included one infant, while the oldest was a 96-year-old woman who died in February, said the Rev. Steve Braddock, who will lead the 3 p.m. service Friday at a vault owned by the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition (FKOC).
"The people we are remembering died homeless or indigent without the means for a private burial," said Braddock. "My belief is that every life is sacred and worthy of respect and remembrance."
City planner Don Craig last month delivered a working list of possible sites for KOTS, which has been off College Road, Stock Island, on county land next-door to the sheriff's office since its inception in 2004.
City commissioners agreed to move KOTS in order to settle a 2011 lawsuit filed by Sunset Marina condo owners, who claim the city hastily built the overnight bunkhouse without following its own permitting process.
The path to KOTS passes right by the entrance to Sunset Marina.
Craig's list of potential new sites included such treasured tourist destinations as Mallory Square and the Truman Waterfront, which awaits a $50 million development by the city as a grand park.
He also suggested the city could buy the parking lot at The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, off Truman Avenue, or space in the cemetery at Big Coppitt, which stunned the cemetery owners, who said they were hit with frantic calls from people whose relatives are buried there.
Some of the options Craig brought forward aren't properly zoned for a homeless shelter, but he said zoning could always be changed.
For more than a year, Mayor Craig Cates had pointed to the city-owned building that once housed the Easter Seals nonprofit, a lot also off College Road not too far from the current KOTS locale. But the gated community at the golf course has formed an offensive line in opposition to the idea, which the full city commission had endorsed last year.
Commissioners dismantled that united front this past fall, and Cates said he would follow the panel's decision.
The city's decision to spend almost $20,000 on consultant Robert Marbut nearly hinged on the plan to eventually house a 24-hour homeless service center at the old Easter Seals place.
"We had a plan, but then it got political during the election and fell apart," said Cates, who won a third term Oct. 1 against Margaret Romero, but not by the large margin he had been accustomed to. "Now we have to start over." Due to the city syncing its elections with the state, Cates has to run again in 2014 after a one-year term instead of the regular two-year tenure.
Commissioners spent the better part of 2013 arguing over how much support to offer the homeless men and women who flock to the tropical island, where a host of nonprofits provide daily meals and other forms of support.
"It is a serious problem, that's why I'm bringing it forward," said Cates. "It's not the best thing as an elected official -- [the homeless are] so controversial and they strike from both sides. I was trying to do the best for the community and spend our money wisely."
City leaders typically attend the annual homeless memorial service. Cates, however, said he has a prior engagement Friday and cannot attend this one.
Last year, Cates choked up at the podium as he realized he had known one of the men on the memorial list from his childhood -- Charles Russell, 60, or "Charlie Duck," known by locals as a lover of dogs and a regular at Sunbeam market.
"He was one of my good friends in school," Cates said. "I didn't know he had died."
The county's social services division provides cremation and burial for the indigent, those who die alone on the streets or people whose next of kin cannot afford the costs.
For $1,200 per body, the county places a marker on each life while providing vault space for the remains. The rate rose by $300 in October, when the Monroe County Commission approved a five-year contract with Castillo and Thurston's Key West Mortuary.
From 2001 until Oct. 16, the cremation cost was set at $900 per body. Prior to February 2001, the rate was $450, according to the county commission's agenda item summary from Sept. 17.
Unclaimed bodies of people who have assets to cover the cost of burial, through a court petition, are not covered by the agreement, according to the contract with the funeral home.
Legally, it falls to the county to handle its unclaimed dead, but county social service staff investigate each person to ensure that taxpayers' money is going for those who were truly indigent. Referrals are made by local funeral homes, which by proximity are called when authorities find a dead body with no immediate family.
Since 2000, the nonprofit headed by Braddock, the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, has owned a vault designated for the homeless.
Not all were homeless by the federal definition, but the service honors the full list of the dead whose bodies were released into the custody of Monroe County as "paupers."
FKOC has organized the memorial service since 2000.
The Key West ceremony is part of the National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day event, purposely held on the longest night of the year as a reminder that during the holiday season there are those without basic comforts, Braddock said.
The tradition was started in 1990 by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Last year, more than 150 communities representing 40 states and the District of Columbia participated.
The Monroe County and Key West city commissions both recently issued proclamations that remember the homeless who died this year.
U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-South Fla., and state Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-South Fla., plan to attend Friday's service, Braddock said.
Deceased veterans will receive the traditional tribute from the Navy honor guard. Lt. Ethan Everts, command chaplain for Naval Air Station Key West, will deliver this year's eulogy.
The public is invited. To get to the vault, enter the cemetery through the main gate by the sexton's house. Ushers will direct guests to the site.
In the event of rain, the service will be held at the First Congregational Church, 527 William St.
Two additional memorial services will be held on Saturday in the Middle and Upper Keys:
• In Tavernier, Community Health Ministries in the Upper Keys is holding a memorial service at noon in Settlers Park. Call 305-852-1612 for details.
• In Marathon, St. Columba Episcopal Church, 451 52nd St., will host a memorial service at 5 p.m., followed by a dinner. Call 305-743-6412 for details.