Florida Keys News
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
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'Let's make everyone count'
Nonprofits, volunteers survey homeless across Keys

Shannon Shannon, a 43-year-old woman who would rather sleep in her girlfriend's car than the city's overnight shelter, says she is down but not out.

"I'm just trying to save up money to leave," Shannon told the stranger asking her a list of questions as part of Tuesday's Point in Time homeless census, done nationwide.

"I do have a little bit of education," said Shannon, who digs into her purse for her I.D. when asked a second time her full name. "I was an office administrator for seven years."

Shannon was just one of the hundreds of homeless individuals interviewed Tuesday by the 77 volunteers who combed the streets, shelters, libraries and the waters of the Florida Keys to conduct the census run by the Monroe County Continuum of Care agency.

Last year's census determined there were 658 homeless individuals in the county.

The results of this year's census will help determine grants for homeless services in Monroe County, and help nonprofits in the Keys plan services based on the needs captured in the survey.

The motto of this year's census is "Let's Make Everyone Count." Instead of merely counting men, women and children without permanent shelter, the Continuum of Care sent people into the streets carrying clipboards, ready to approach strangers who fit the definition.

"I didn't meet one belligerent one," said Mayor Craig Cates, who observed volunteers doing surveys at Mallory Square, Caroline Street and then at the beaches off Atlantic Boulevard. "They were all very nice. A few of them introduced themselves, and we talked awhile. They're all people. They've got issues. They're happy to be in Key West, and they like the people. Some can't work; some don't want to work."

Numbers from Tuesday's 24-hour counting period will take at least a week to process, said census organizer Stephanie Kaple, whose day job is finding shelter for homeless families.

"We don't want to rush anything," said Kaple, who started Tuesday opening up an office of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition on Patterson Avenue at 5:30 a.m. "We want to make sure it is clear and accurate."

The census is "self-reporting," Kaple said, when asked about its accuracy. People could say they're not homeless when they are under the federal government's definition of substandard or unstable housing, she said.

"It's the best way we have found to do it at this time," Kaple said.

Mindy McKenzie, deputy director of Samuel's House, didn't ask the "Are you homeless" question to the liveaboards she found Tuesday while on the Key West Police Department's boat with her survey team, which interviewed about 50 people.

"People were very cooperative," McKenzie said, as she arrived at Patterson Avenue to drop off the surveys.

City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, the only elected official in the county who attended a volunteer training session, was also on the police boat. When the team came across a woman who only spoke Spanish, Yaniz was able to talk to her, McKenzie said.

"It's a long day because they want to talk," McKenzie said of the liveaboards. "They don't see a lot of people."

Many of those surveyed in Key West on Tuesday had heard about the homeless census from the news, and dutifully complied to the questioning, which took about 10 minutes per for Shannon to complete.

Without complaint, Shannon candidly described her homeless state while waiting to eat a hot meal at St. Mary's Soup Kitchen, 2706 Flagler Ave.

A divorce a year ago started the financial spiral that left her without a real roof over her head, she said. She said she's been an office manager, co-owned a business, and is planning to take a certified nursing assistant course soon.

But on Tuesday, she was stuck without a safe home, having received help from programs such as the soup kitchen, Star of the Sea outreach mission on Stock Island, the domestic abuse shelter, and the city's bunkhouse -- Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS).

Shannon would rather sleep in a borrowed car than at KOTS.

"Not due to staff, the staff is great," she said. "It's frightening, the aspect of safeness."

She also can't stay in most local shelters because she has two dogs, which for now are being cared for by the Florida Keys SPCA's Faith program.

"I don't have children, so they are my babies," Shannon said, seated at the open-air soup kitchen, where behind her a man was sleeping sitting up, and two seats down a shirtless man was listening to a portable radio and smiling.

"I've had them for 9 and 11 years," Shannon said of her dogs. "I don't go anywhere without them."

Shannon has a girlfriend in Key West, but Angelina Fernandez lives with her grown daughter, and there isn't always room to stay, they both said.

"It's hard," Fernandez said, after declining the census volunteer's request, saying she has a place to stay. "She's going through a lot."

Snippets of conversation pop up as Shannon answers the questions for a census volunteer, and a second volunteer speaks with someone else nearby.

A few tables over a woman loudly says, "He's been sober a week!"

A gray-haired man with a beard is telling somebody that if it weren't for "the Mexicans and Haitians taking all the jobs," life would be easier for folks like himself.

"You don't know what you're talking about," replied a younger man in glasses, who cursed a lot and apologized to a woman nearby for his language. He said he has lived in Key West for 16 years, and lost a $20-an-hour job recently. He ticks off a list of things he had once -- a motorcycle, a car.

"I've been at the soup kitchen four times in my life," he said, as if defending himself in an argument. He wouldn't give his name to a reporter.

And he wouldn't participate in the survey.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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