Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Homeless summit gathers leaders

When city commissioners arrive at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Harvey Government Center, they better have a plan for addressing the island's homeless problem, one county leader says.

"They're going to have to define exactly why we're sitting at the table," said County Commissioner George Neugent of Marathon. "Of all the commissioners, I've probably been the most reluctant to say anything until we get some type of feedback."

Neugent said the last time Mayor Craig Cates approached him on the homeless issue, the city commission appeared to lack a consensus on any plan.

"I can tell you, I don't live there," Neugent said of Key West. "I've got a lot of other issues I'm focused on."

The agenda, set by the county commission, includes presentations on the history of the Key West homeless shelter, and an overview of the landmark Pottinger vs. the city of Miami case, which set civil rights standards for Florida cities in dealing with the homeless.

Cates said he plans to ask county commissioners for help in running the homeless shelter, whether it's land for a new shelter or continued financial support by the county.

"We pay into the county general fund just like everyone else," said Cates. "We're going to come out and show it's not just a Key West problem, and we're going to discuss the issues. We're going to show we're helping ourselves by helping them."

Cates said he will give an opening statement on behalf of the city, and County Mayor Sylvia Murphy of Key Largo will deliver one for the county.

"I'll be able to lay out what we're trying to accomplish," said the Key West mayor. "Then we'll have citizen input. The city attorney will give an update."

Powder-keg topic

At issue for the city now is relocating its only overnight shelter in order to settle a lawsuit by Sunset Marina homeowners who fought against the location, claiming the city ignored its own permitting rules when deciding to put the shelter off College Road.

Proposals and plans are hard to find around Old City Hall, but the homeless issue has become a powder-keg topic lately, generating quick criticism and political rhetoric.

Commissioner Tony Yaniz suggested the St. Mary's Soup Kitchen, which serves daily hot meals to anyone at its property off Flagler Avenue, should cut back its services.

"What we've got to do is quit making it cozy," said Yaniz. "Quite frankly, I'd like to see the chronic homeless -- let's not feed them anymore."

At last Tuesday's city commission meeting, Yaniz, first elected in 2011, pulled an item about the relocation of the Mallory Square "panhandling zone" off the consent agenda so he could make some comments. The proposal was to move the zone about 50 feet away from where it was located two years ago at the entrance of the parking lot.

Yaniz called the panhandling zone "a symptom and it's not the actual disease. The disease is chronic homelessness."

At the same meeting, Yaniz expressed strong support for the planned Vietnam Veterans monument at Bayview Park. The commission unanimously promised up to $150,000 of city money for the memorial park.

At any given time, 12 percent of the homeless population nationwide comprises veterans, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which estimates 150,000 vets sleep outdoors.

The city paid consultant Robert Marbut $20,000 to study the homeless issue. In his report, Marbut said Key West had the highest percentage of "non-native" homeless he has ever seen. They come for the warm weather, said Marbut, who sketched out a new type of comprehensive shelter plan for the city. His estimate of 1,400 homeless people on the island stunned local leaders.

The January Point in Time survey, where volunteers hit the streets Keyswide to survey the homeless, estimated the entire county had 837 homeless people within a 24-hour period. But 144 of those counted were in the county jail, making them ineligible for the official count that goes to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Jan. 28 Keyswide survey counted 693 people living on the streets or in shelters. In addition, 179 people were in long-term supportive housing.

An about face

Within a two-year span, Cates has gone from advocating a 24-hour homeless shelter to conceding voters don't want such a shelter. In December 2012, the commission voted 5-2 in favor of having staff explore the creation of a 24-hour center. The dissenting votes were cast by Mark Rossi and Billy Wardlow.

By October, a unanimous vote put the brakes on any money being spent, or staff time being invested, on plans for a shelter at the old Easter Seals lot on College Road.

Since 2004, the city has paid for an overnight shelter on Stock Island, where up to 140 men and women can rely on a shower, a vinyl mattress and some combination shampoo/soap.

The shelter empties out each morning at 7 o'clock, and the men and women start back down College Road toward downtown where the Catholic church feeds them daily, seven days a week, and various other agencies offer services. By 6 p.m. each day, the homeless flock back to the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS) on foot or bicycles.

KOTS, located on College Road at the sheriff's department property, costs the city about $440,000 a year and is managed by the nonprofit Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (SHAL).

Cates took some political hits last year for supporting the creation of a new shelter that incorporates work training and counseling in an effort to help homeless men and women get back on their feet.

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley said he doesn't believe a 24-hour shelter is needed, while Yaniz has become a critic of the homeless populace saying they can make do with "a toilet, a tent and a shower."

In recent months, Sheriff Rick Ramsay has said he would like to see the shelter moved from his department's property, saying his staff is doing most of the work when it comes to maintaining the shelter.

Commissioners showed a consensus for moving KOTS, but not very far. Their top choice for a new homeless shelter is a building next door to the sheriff's jail on Stock Island. The building is currently leased out to county and state agencies, and contains the juvenile detention center.

Neugent said he expects Wednesday's meeting to largely focus on opening up the lines of communication between the city and county leadership.

"What do we do? What do we want to see done?" Neugent asked. "That's going to be interesting to find out. It could be a short meeting."