Key West’s network of police, nonprofits, philanthropists, social services and city government will deploy the RV, staffed with a driver and a trained crisis case manager, to deliver services to the droves of homeless people who aren’t already getting basic services.Help with registering for food stamps, state identification cards and Medicaid benefits, along with mail service, will travel the island, parking for two-hour intervals at spots the police are summoned to regularly. Health care services, such as emergency wound care and substance abuse counseling, are on the way.The project, while headed for deployment in two months, still needs about $40,000, and the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League’s (SHAL) 15 provider members have feelers out to private donors.More than 200 men and women sleep outdoors on the island daily, each of them so close, yet too far from the comprehensive network of social services available, according to the mayor’s committee to address the needs of the Key West homeless.“A lot of people feel like the system has let them down,” said Wendy Coles, executive director of SHAL, formed in 1999 as the state and federal agency responsible for distributing resources to all homeless service providers in Monroe County. “This is a pilot program to see if we can impact the numbers.” Coles doesn’t like the term “homeless,” noting the target population is more accurately described as “people in need,” since she notes there are families doubled up in apartments who wouldn’t consider themselves homeless.
Coles, who spent 25 years as a General Motors executive, starting out on the assembly line in the early 1970s before becoming the head of SHAL six years ago, said Key West’s homeless problem isn’t exactly a crisis.
“It’s very stable,” Coles said of the population. “We have, countywide, about 1,000 people.”
Whatever the term, their plight costs the Sheriff’s Office $3.3 million a year in detention expenses, while Lower Keys Medical Center spends about $1 million a month to care for the homeless during the winter months, and the local ambulance service invests $500,000 a year on calls involving homeless people, according to the report by the mayor’s committee. The city spends $400,000 a year for the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition to run the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS) on Stock Island, on land donated by Monroe County.
Key West Police Chief Donie Lee said he supports a mobile outreach program.
“If they don’t want to take advantage of services, we will arrest them over and over and over again,” Lee said recently, speaking to a group of visitors to the Police Department. “We deal with it every day — complaints from visitors, business owners. We can either arrest them or refer them. We prefer to refer them.”
Of his 94 officers, four are assigned to “quality of life” patrols that monitor the homeless who break the city’s open container law by swilling from cans of Natural Ice, the cheap and potent beer brand that often turns up in arrest reports for municipal violations and misdemeanors like trespassing.
The officers are funded by a grant the city won two years ago, but in 2013 the city is due to pay its squad’s salaries and benefits.
“We are fully engaged in this problem,” Lee said. “But this is not just a police problem.”
Those on the front lines of serving the most vulnerable population — the addicted, mentally ill and abject poor — say they are already reaching out to the needy. A mobile unit only adds to the social services network.
“It’s a way for us to get to the more entrenched population that does not leave downtown or does not leave the mangroves,” said A.B. Maloy, an attorney who earlier this year became area director of the Guidance/Care Center Inc. (GCC). “We’re trying to find those gaps in services, with the people who are turf-based. We need to go to them.”
“GCC is committed to doing outreach,” said Maloy, ticking off a list of in-the-field programs that the long-running agency maintains. “We get people to us and to the services they need.”
The 200 wanderers in Key West don’t include the 150 men and women who sleep at the homeless shelter, which empties daily at 7:30 a.m., or the dozens of people living in temporary housing among a host of nonprofits Keyswide.
In recent years, Key West residents were sharply divided over whether a day center would alleviate the foot traffic of the homeless, particularly the groups who camp on beaches and shorelines while the city’s services are located in the middle of the island.
The city has earmarked $75,000 in its 2011-12 budget, but the RV was purchased last week thanks to $65,000 from the Klaus Murphy Foundation, and agencies that already provide outreach services have signed on.
GCC will staff it with a case manager and the Police Department has mapped out the growing locations where bands of homeless live together.
Pros and cons
A mobile outreach unit for the homeless has its skeptics.
“You already have a homeless shelter; now you’re going to drive around offering aid,” City Commissioner Mark Rossi said. “Where do you draw the line? I don’t think city taxpayers’ dollars should have to fund it. That money can go to low-paying jobs — bus drivers, secretaries and other people doing the grunt work. That money would be three times better to support workers than a homeless van.”
Going mobile with homeless services is more than an experiment, City Commissioner Teri Johnston said.
“What we’ve got right now doesn’t seem to meet the needs of the general population of Key West,” Johnston said. “This is the opportunity to take these services out to people where they’re at. We’ve got to keep trying different avenues to come up with a happy medium for residents, businesses and the homeless, and for being a compassionate community.”
Johnston, a local contractor, said the mobile unit is the community’s way of stepping up to the problem of vagrancy.
“It’s really a blight on the businesses downtown. It’s a blight on being a compassionate community,” she said. “You can’t stick your head in the sand and say it’s not going away. We either try something or we do nothing and hope it gets better, which to me is ludicrous.”
Mayor Craig Cates started rounding up a committee to hammer out a new approach to Key West’s vagrancy population. A couple of years later, the most recent panel proposed the mobile approach.
“The homeless are not going away, all right?” said Cates. “It’s something we have to deal with, and there’s so many reasons for it. What we’re trying to do is help them in their location. They don’t know where to go and a lot of them won’t go anywhere because of the way they look or another reason.”
The mobile outreach unit was the mayor’s committee’s response to a citywide protest when the idea to open a day center to receive the homeless fell flat with residents who did not want to live near a modern-day mecca for the troubled and vulnerable.
“Nobody wanted it in their backyard,” Cates said. “We knew we needed something.”
In some cases, Key West is the end of the road for those who later regret having chosen the remote island off U.S. 1, Johnston said.
“People are displaced from their family and friends and have no way to get back there,” she said. “This program provides a bus ticket.”
Johnston and City Commissioner Barry Gibson visited Miami a couple years ago and found the city reaping benefits from programs aimed at reducing vagrancy, she said.
Addressing homelessness in Key West will always be a divisive issue in the international tourist destination reliant on vacationers, and where the streets are shared by business owners, residents and those who sleep on the beaches and in parking garages, Johnston said.
“That’s what this mobile unit alleviates,” she said. “You don’t have a situation where you’re putting it in someone’s backyard. You’re going to where they’re at.”
What if he had been taken to a residence men’s shelter, Florida Keys Outreach Coalition? He would have been turned away because he could not pass a urine test. If he had smoked marijuana recently, he would have been turned away for that reason, too. If he had gone through rehab at the Guidance Clinic and gotten cleaned up, he probably would qualify for FKOC’s program, if he was willing to go through it and do chores in the shelter and attend Twelve Step meetings and get paying work, which are requirements of FKOC for shelter residences.
I know people mean well, when they try to help homeless people, but what does an ex-auto worker know about homeless people? What does a lawyer know about running a Guidance-Care clinic? What does a jail know about treating people for substance addiction? What does a priest like Steve Braddock, whom I know pretty well and like, know about the kind of soul healing that is required to resolve what made a person end up like the homeless man the police arrested and jailed? If you talk with AA or NA old-timers, if you can get them to level with you, they will tell you 95 percent of people who enter those programs relapse. About the same outcome for rehab clinic graduates, if you can get rehab clinics to level with you.
I am trained, extensively, in healing the worst kind of soul wounds imaginable. I have treated many people for the worst kind of soul wounds imaginable. And there is nothing I could do for the homeless man the police arrested and jailed, other than what was done for him at the jail. There is nothing I can do for people for whom homelessness has become a way of life, other than what already is being done for them: a soup kitchen, a clothes pantry, medical help when they are sick, a place to receive mail, help getting food stamps, Internet access. A place to bathe would be nice, too. And essential.
Note, I speak here not of people who recently went homeless because of one or more of the common reasons: lost a job, got divorced, ruinous medical expenses, etc. I speak here of people like the man in the article, many of whom I have known, and others, not as messed up by chemical addiction, but still “addicted,” if you wish to call it what it is, to being homeless. Or call it “institutionalized.” It has become their way of life. It is what is most comfortable to them. Only God can change them. This is understood at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen. They say, “It’s our job to feed homeless people, it’s God’s job to change them.”
I count Mayor Craig Cates and City Commissioners Teri Johnston and Mark Rossi as friends. Yet it looks to me like Mark has it sized up. The city should focus its rehab efforts on new homeless people, who have recently suffered difficulty that made them homeless. Those people are still in shock. They don’t want to be homeless. They want to get back on their feet. They can be reached. They need a place to live. They need a job. This is where the biggest return can be had. Especially needed are places for homeless families.
There are residence shelters for single men and women, who are willing to give up booze and related chemicals. And for those who are not, there is KOTS, or living on the street and taking their chances with the police catching them sleeping outside at night, which is a very serious crime against humanity in Key West. My opinion, the city using its police to keep street people from sleeping at night is a crime against God.
In the Pottinger case, the United States District Court held, affirmed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, it was cruel and unusual punishment to arrest and jail homeless people for sleeping at night, unless the City of Miami had shelters where homeless people could sleep at night, and they refused to go to the shelters. And only then, if the police offered homeless people rides to the shelters, and the rides were declined. Key West has not sufficient room at KOTS for all of its homeless people, and it does not offer them rides.
I suppose the most amazing thing about all of this to me is, the only experts on homelessness in the article are homeless people. I wonder why the Citizen did not interview any experts on homelessness? They certainly know how to get in touch with me. I could have put them in touch with other experts.