A surprising statistic came out in the news last week. According to one expert 5.8% of Key West’s population is homeless and lives in the mangroves. We’re not even kidding. This is actually the conclusion of a $20,000 study presented by Dr. Robert Marbut to a straight–faced City Commission on August 6th, 2013. At least 1,422 people, according to Marbut, are homeless in Key West and have been for years. After subtracting those in jail and at KOTS [the emergency shelter, on Stock Island] we’re left with around 1200 that he claims are, for the most part, hidden “in the mangroves”. Needless to say that night we endeavored to beat around every mangrove bush we could find in hopes of raising Dr. Marbut’s apocalyptic legions of homelessness. We encountered no more than a few weary souls.
According to the 2013 Homeless Point In Time Report published by the Monroe County Homeless Services Continuum-of-Care Inc., there are about 480 homeless people in the Lower Keys, After subtracting those in jail or at KOTS, children, boaters and Stock Island’s homeless, there are likely around 50 people truly sleeping on the streets or “in the mangroves” of Key West. A far cry from the 1200 suggested by Dr. Marbut. So, what is going on?
Well, for one thing, there’s no data in Dr. Marbut’s report that would back-up his conclusion. There are no charts, no raw numbers, no dates and his accounting is somewhat peculiar. For instance, he appears to include as currently homeless anyone who, in the past 10 years, was booked into the County jail at least twice and failed to provide an address of residence. Likewise, anyone who signed their name twice on the roster at KOTS in the past three years was also added to the list of those who are “actively” and permanently homeless in Key West. Yet, despite his questionable accounting methods, cities around the nation love Dr. Marbut, the guru of homelessness, and there’s a simple reason for it.
Marbut promotes the creation of large centers where the entire population of homeless can be transported and “transformed”. He helped create “Haven For Hope”, a $ 125 Million dollar homeless center in San Antonio, Texas and “Safe Harbor” in Clearwater, Florida near St. Petersburg. It’s all about putting an end to enabling the homeless and instead challenging them to change their ways.
Even politicians who don’t necessarily share Marbut’s sense of humanity and compassion love him at first sight. They simply can’t wait to clean up the downtown tourist districts, the beaches, the parks, the underpasses full of the homeless and Key West is no exception. We may be “One Human Family” but this is a tourist town and the homeless are bad for business.
Wendy Cole, who for years was the Executive Director for SHAL (Southernmost Homeless Assistance League) supports the creation of a center, which would most likely be located on Stock Island. “This facility is desperately needed,” says Cole, “It will make serving the homeless a lot easier and also much more efficient.”
So, here it is: Are those honorable motives sufficient to justify cooking up some numbers? Is it just the modern way of government: dream us up 1,500 homeless guys, boost the numbers and get millions of dollars of federal money? And do those homeless centers really work?
Apparently, there are some serious unintended consequences. Unfortunate residents of the neighborhoods chosen for the construction of these centers don’t seem to have any kind words for the concept. MYSA (My San Antonio), a San Antonio, Texas newspaper quotes some residents in the neighborhood outside of Haven for Hope. “They urinate and defecate in our yards. They use drugs and drink, have sex with prostitutes. They have no regard for dignity or shame,” says Gloria Castro looking at the homeless who began flocking to her neighborhood. The problems come mostly from people who get suspended from the “Courtyard” at Haven For Hope. “They don’t belong here,” says Castro, who had called the police a dozen times in the previous year. According to San Antonio police, emergency calls for the surrounding neighborhood had risen 42% since it’s opening.
The same litany of complaints plagued the neighborhood around “Safe Harbor”. Tampa Bay Times reports, Safe Harbor neighbors accused St. Petersburg Mayor of shipping downtown’s homeless population to their community. Again, it seems that most of the problems were created by the people who were drunk, abusive, using drugs and not allowed to remain at the center. According to St Pete’s Police Department, the number of complaints around Safe Harbor rose 30% in the first 6 months of its opening.
And it gets worse: After a brief success in St. Pete, where the homeless had all but disappeared from downtown – the unthinkable happened: According to a report in the Tampa Bay Times last February, they came back!! The City Council called Dr. Marbut in a panic. They drove around downtown where the homeless had again started to congregate and Marbut had to break out the news to St Pete’s elders. It’s not enough to create a homeless center. You must also have devoted people who are going to reach out to the homeless, talk to them with respect and convince them that the center will help them regain their dignity. Contrary to the hopes and wishes of some, a homeless center will not be a lock-down facility. It takes real commitment to keep it working in a way that makes homeless people want to use it.
So, is this really for us? Key West is a very small town, with a lot of resources and a pledge to treat each other as “One Human Family”. This project would need expansive long-term commitments. Small facilities of 400 beds like Safe Harbor, reportedly run a $2.4 Million budget. If we were to hold Dr. Marbut to his own numbers, Key West would need, at a minimum, a 1500 bed facility.
In St. Pete, the Safe Harbor center didn’t keep the homeless population from growing; actually there is clear evidence to the contrary. Many people we spoke with in Key West agree whole-heartedly with Marbut’s policy against enablement, but most said they fail to see why a 24-hour shelter would not become the ultimate enabler.
Another big issue is the goal of maintaining a “safe distance” between the shelter and the tourist district it is meant to protect. In San Antonio, Haven For Hope was built in a residential neighborhood outside the downtown area and Safe Harbor is about 13 miles away from downtown St. Pete. In Key West nothing will keep people from walking back downtown, even more so now that they ‘re not going to be burdened with bags, thanks to Marbut’s locker-room.
Another issue is the potential for the dismantling of local charities castigated by Marbut as “enablers”. In San Antonio as in St Pete, charities complained of getting elbowed out. In Key West, someone from the Homeless Services Continuum-of-Care group has already complained that Marbut didn’t consult with them while he was gathering information for his report to the Commission. If those services were to disappear it would be difficult to reactivate them if the center were ever to run out of funding.
Do we need a smaller version tailored to a small village with big city problems? Cities like St. Pete and St. Antonio describe a far worse problem with homelessness than what we’re seeing here in Key West. “Tent Cities”, dozens sleeping on sidewalks most nights, public parks overrun with homeless people, the smell of lemon-scented disinfectant used to clean the sidewalks of the stench of urine. The addition of many more homeless people getting services will further burden a social services system already on the brink.
It seems that the nuisance imposed upon the neighborhoods surrounding these centers comes mostly from the number of people kicked out of the courtyard who are, for the most part, single men, drunk, using drugs, abusive or even violent. Interestingly enough, that is pretty much the profile of Key West’s homeless population, as it was described by Dr. Marbut at the August 6, 2013 Commission meeting. Are our homeless fit for this project? And who will protect Stock Island residents from the impacts? “The police round up the homeless but they come right back,” said one resident near Heaven for Hope to a MySA reporter, “They get in our face. They threaten us.”
There needs to be a real debate with real numbers, and a real commitment to follow through and not create lawlessness in a Stock Island neighborhood by destroying existing infrastructure and goodwill.