The same warm, year-round temperatures that attract young families and wealthy retirees also make the Florida Keys an alluring place for men, women and children with no other place to turn.
Non-profit outreach services like food banks and shelters are serving more than double the amount of people than normal. So The Marathon Weekly has decided to share an individual account of how these organizations continue, despite decreasing funding with state and federal budget cuts, help hidden members of our community get back on their feet.
When he got out of the service in 1974, Dale Baker returned to his native New York before heading south to New Orleans to reconnect with folks he’d met in the military.
“I was a junkie,” he remembered.
He described using such large quantities of a handful of drugs that he could easily down a fifth of Johnny Walker in the blink of an eye.
Even eight months in the methadone program at a VA Hospital in New York failed to change his course.
One night in New Orleans, “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Baker decided it was time to leave town. He covered his eyes with his hand and blindly landed his index finger on Miami. He hitched a ride on a Greyhound Bus to his next stop in South Florida.
“I was really messed up,” he confessed, adding that as part of a Compensated Work Program through Veteran’s Affairs, he found himself flipping burgers at Wendy’s. “I ain’t proud of that, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”
After Veteran’s Services programs in the Miami area helped Dale get and stay clean, he and a friend in the program heard about Marathon, and roughly five years ago, they set their sites on the Middle Keys.
With a tent, supplies, and rucksack in tow, he established a camp near the Seven Mile Bridge.
“I was determined I wouldn’t drink or take drugs. I was clean and kept my area clean, so the police left me alone.”
Someone told Dale about Higher Love, the predecessor of Independence Cay that currently provides shelter for homeless men in Marathon. He quickly proved his abilities as a house manager.
Dale currently coordinates with Executive Director Kirk Maconaughey to prepare lunch each day for any homeless people who need a hot meal.
“I’m only supposed to be open from 11 to 2, but I basically keep the place open 24 hours,” he admitted. “If people can’t take a shower and wash their clothes, how are they supposed to get a job?”
Dale added that there are of course those individuals who only give lip service to getting back on their feet, but no one is beyond help.
“Idle time causes trouble for you. Many people just want to cruise through life, but you can’t. You gotta better yourself every day,” he assured, adding, ”I look at people who are high and drunk, and they just look stupid. It reminds me of who I used to be. I love to play pool, but I ain’t been in a bar in 15 years.”
Independence Cay – a transitional housing, inclement weather shelter, community soup kitchen, and provider of other services for men, women, and children who’ve been temporarily displaced from traditional permanent housing – functions with the primary goal of helping people help themselves. They are the only existing provider of these services in the Middle and Upper Keys. For many, Independence Cay is the only option during this extremely difficult economic climate.
For more information about the organization, the services they provide and organizations with which they collaborate, visit http://www.independencecay.org.
Dale Baker was a homeless, recovering drug addict when he arrived in Marathon. During his rehabilitation in Miami-Dade County, he earned a mental health license and currently serves as the house manager at Independence Cay.
Independence Cay Screening
Florida Keys AHEC is among Independence Cay’s healthcare agency community partnerships. This week, nurses Dasia Wilson and Shelley Hornbuckle conducted free health screening for nearly a dozen individuals.