Just as snowbirds and seasonal residents migrate back to the Keys, along with the brown pelicans, so does another local population see a significant increase – the homeless.
“An attractive nuisance,” as some may call it, warmer temperatures make it easier for people down on their luck to survive in the Florida Keys.
Their camps are marked by clear-cut trails through thick mangroves in the Middle Keys. Key West has countless social service organizations committed to assisting the homeless who live on boats, in cars and in tiny out island camps; but the city still walks a very fine line between respecting human rights and disturbing or discouraging tourism, the county’s primary economic engine.
“Josh” is a 33-year-old homeless man who carries everything he owns in his backpack.
“I just got tired of the 9 to 5 and wanted to live a simpler life,” he told The Weekly Newspapers. “I don’t have a mortgage or bills. I mean, you’ve seen what gas prices are doing.”
A Point in Time survey, coordinated by the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (SHAL) counted 142 homeless people residing in the Middle Keys in January 2010. Executive Director Wendy Coles said of the population surveyed, 21 percent of those were male and 56 percent were over 60 years old. Women and children, she noted, are a very difficult segment of the homeless population to track as they tend to prefer to hide.
The survey, coordinated by trained volunteers, asks members of the homeless community their race; marital status; whether or not they’ve served in the military; the initial cause of their homelessness and for how long that has persisted; how long they’ve been in Monroe County; and finally, whether or not they have children traveling with them.
Coles said the survey will be modified this year to include a question about exiting their current situation within Monroe County. She added that though there are roughly 250 beds available through organizations like Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS), Florida Keys Children’s Shelter, Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, Samuel’s House, Catholic Charities (the list goes on…) many members of the homeless community simply avoid the hassle of the shelters.
“KOTS houses about 150 people, so many do not want to live in cramped quarters,” Coles explained. “So it’s understandable that’s not appealing. A lot of these individuals have simply given up on the system. They’re skeptical of the system, so they withdraw.”
Lt. JR Torres, head of the Key West Police Department Quality of Life officers, said since the inception of his program last August under Chief Donnie Lee’s leadership, he’s seen significant progress in the “quality of life” issues that challenge the city.
From helping locate money for a driver’s license – which eventually helped one man land a job transporting bicycles – to another case where a QoL officer gave verbal reference for a man who could not afford the required first and last month’s rent along with a security deposit find a permanent residence, Torres said individuals had begun opening up with conversations to the officers.
“There’s been a level of trust developed among the homeless people to come forward to our officers and explain their situations,” Torres explained.
He’s also quick to differentiate something the officers learned in their Crisis Intervention Training – a distinct difference between a homeless person and a vagrant.
“Anyone can find themselves homeless due to catastrophic event, but vagrancy happens and continues by choice,” he continued. “This is still a rather new concept for our department.”
“Bill” originally found himself in Key West en route to a job in Central America. He helped build a boat in Washington, DC, but his schedule included an extended layover in Key West. According to Bill, while he was “out partying one night in Key West” someone broke into his room and stole a large sum of cash on which he was supposed to live.
So Bill got on his bike headed back to the mainland. His intended destination was Miami, but stopped for a night’s rest in the Community Park.
“A guy came by and wanted to give away this boat,” he remembered. “I was the first tramp to stand up. Told him I’d give him a dollar ‘cause I didn’t want any trouble with titles or anything. I met him, signed the papers, fixed it up, and now I’m living on my boat in the harbor.”
Bill who also attests to being a heavy equipment operator, said work aboard another boat has been hard to come by these days.
“There are 10 guys standing in front of me for those jobs,” he lamented. “You gotta know somebody.”
“Herman” is an older gentleman who often visits Independence Cay, Marathon’s transitional housing, emergency shelter and soup kitchen that serves lunch to roughly 30 clients six days a week. While serving in the military and stationed in North Carolina, Herman fell in love with South Florida. He now lives in Boot Key Harbor during the winter, but in the spring he sails to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras for a change of scenery.
While in Marathon, Herman often visits the dumpster behind the Salvation Army to sift through old clothes discarded from the store.
“When I take clothes and shoes to the Mosquito Coast, I am like Santa Claus,” he laughed. “We generally try to keep things neat when we’re looking through there, but some people make a mess and it causes trouble.”
There are success stories.
“Sam” came to Independence Cay roughly a year ago and has since begun attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He’s been sober for more than six months, according to the home’s executive director, Kirk Maconaughey.
The shelter’s mission is simple: “We help people help themselves.” According to their website, Independence Cay is committed to assisting those displaced from permanent housing and living in the mangroves, makeshift housing, tents, on the streets and in substandard conditions.
“We know these people exist because we are serving them lunch six days a week,” Maconaughey continued.
So, why would these individuals choose a life “off the grid?”
That’s something the Point In Time survey, scheduled for Tuesday, January 25 hopes to uncover.
Volunteers are still needed to help canvas the community. Comparable to the federal Census Bureau’s efforts to tally as many Monroe County residents in 2010, the Point In Time survey will help organization’s like SHAL and others throughout the county offer the best and most efficient ways to help decrease the number of homeless men, women and children living in the mangroves, aboard derelict boats and in their cars in Monroe County.
If interested in participating in the Point In Time survey in your community, please contact Wendy Coles at the Southernmost Homelessness Assistance League at 305-292-4404.
Camp adjacent legion
The property between Home Depot and American Legion Post # 154 is full of current and former homeless camps. This particular camp is just steps from US 1.
Camp with kitchen
Another campsite is roped off and fairly well covered. The mattress is elevated on a rock to help alleviate dampness, and a makeshift cooking area is also part of the setup.
Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Colen chats with men behind Fairway Market, a popular place for congregating and even gardening.
This tent and garbage is just over the fence of the Home Depot parking lot. Home Depot contacted Marathon’s soup kitchen and homeless shelter, Independence Cay, seeking applications for employment in mid-December. Little interest was generated from the inquiry.
High gravity beer
High gravity beers like Steel Reserve and Keystone Light have higher alcohol content and are popular beverages of choice in area homeless camps.