I would like to clear the air on some misinformation about the homeless shelter I have been proposing for Key West. It's not the mayor's shelter. It is Key West's shelter for the homeless.
Anyone that has been in Key West since 2000 knows what it was like before the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter on Stock Island was built. The homeless were camping in tents and cardboard huts on Roosevelt Boulevard, by the beach, in our parks and all over Key West. The police could not do anything about them because we did not have a shelter. So KOTS was built and we were able to move them from those locations.
When I ran for mayor the first time, I said I would address the homeless issue in Key West and I have not wavered. I started a homeless committee and discussed issues and solutions. The meetings were open to the public and minutes were taken. The need to improve the homeless shelter to become more efficient and effective was noted.
The idea of the mobile unit came up. The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League received a grant to purchase a motorhome and the city helped fund its operational cost. Case workers are able to go to the homeless that would not come out of the encampments and help them get the services they need, such as getting identification so they can receive state and federal assistance and help them get in contact with family to return to their hometowns.
We passed stricter camping ordinances, stricter rules to protect our parks and passed no-panhandling zones. But as much as we have done, we still have a huge issue.
Where we are today is KOTS has been challenged by a lawsuit [that apparently will be settled]. The facility is on Sheriff's Office property where they may or may not renew our lease. The sheriff tells us what hours it can operate, from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., with no one allowed at the shelter during the day.
So everyone leaves and is on the streets all day looking for food, drinks and just hanging out all over town. Then they are fed on Flagler Avenue at the soup kitchen or take handouts throughout town. At the end of the day, they try to make it back to KOTS that opens at 6 p.m. They must arrive before 9:30 p.m. or they are not allowed in.
Many just sleep wherever they can. To be proactive and not wait until we are forced to leave the Sheriff's Office property with nowhere to go, I proposed a shelter on the city's property at Easter Seals. We know the city needs at the bare minimum an overnight shelter.
I proposed the city selling the property to the Monroe County Land Authority, which collects sales tax in Key West to buy property for affordable housing, then returning the property back to Key West with a deed restriction that it will always be used for affordable housing.
What is more basic affordable housing than whether you stay at the shelter or you're homeless? Use the money from the sale to build the shelter with no money coming out of the city taxpayers' pockets.
When the shelter is no longer needed, another type of housing could be built there. The purpose of the 24-hour shelter is they don't have to leave in the morning to wander the streets all day.
At the shelter, social services could come to them. They will have less chance to get sick so the hospital won't have indigent-care costs of $14 million as has been stated by Lower Keys Medical Center.
Instead of taking them to jail for municipal ordinance offenses, we could take them to the shelter. This would save our police department valuable time because it takes about two hours to make an arrest. It would also save the sheriff the cost of incarceration.
The St. Mary's Soup Kitchen has agreed to feed the homeless at the shelter and close the facility on Flagler. The idea is to feed them at the shelter so they have to go there and also not allow them to camp on the streets, but give them the option to go to the shelter or jail if they are breaking the law. The Sheriff's Office spent more than $1 million on the homeless last year, but at the shelter we won't have that responsibility.
They would have a location to keep their belongings when they try to find a job without having to carry everything they own on their back or hide it in the bushes. We will not allow them to sleep on the streets or live in the mangroves because we will have a location to take them 24 hours a day.
We know that many homeless want the opportunity to get back on their feet but we also know about 25 to 30 percent have addictions and mental issues they may never overcome.
We must work together with the Sheriff's Office, the hospital, the Monroe County Health Department, the nonprofits and the County Commission to address this issue, which is not just a Key West issue; it's everyone's issue.
I believe "One Human Family" is more than a bumper sticker.
Craig Cates is the mayor of Key West.