Big Story / Hobo Mecca?


By Rick Boettger


We in the Keys have proven to be generous with our time and money to residents who are disadvantaged through no choice of their own. We have the MARC house for the learning disabled, Heron-Peacock for mental problems, Samuel’s House for abused women, the FKOC for addicts, and AIDS Help for the HIV positive, just for starters. The big question, especially in Key West, is do we want to extend similar care to people with no such afflictions but who choose to come here, without the ability to support themselves, simply because we’re warm and welcoming?



As good a word as any for them is “hobo,” defined as “homeless vagabond.” The critical issue with our “hobos” as opposed to the other disadvantaged we serve so well is the “vagabond” component of their condition. If we had to serve only those born here or even those who had lived here for some time before becoming homeless, that is, the non-”vagabonds,” we would have only a small problem which we could surely address as well as we do the others.



The crux of the problem is the large number of people with no prior claim on the Keys who make the very rational decision to travel here because our weather alone sure beats Detroit. It’s a free country, and they are perfectly within their rights as Americans to bus or hitchhike down here and step into our paradise. They have made their smart decision. We residents have to make our own decision: how do we deal with them?



As a community we are deeply divided, though I suspect if we had a referendum the results would be more lopsided against the homeless than the recent 3-to-1 against cruise ships. But what I posit as the pro-hobo minority have not only the (seeming) moral high ground, but the Pottinger ruling protecting hobos against arrest. I have come to the conclusion that the best we can do is to clarify whom we want to help and why, whom we want to discourage from coming here, and how to do so.



For starters, I think we can unanimously agree that we do not want to advertise up north for more hobos to head on down, correct? Even those who reasonably favor a certain proportion of free-spirited vagabonds as part of  our One Human Family local color would, I think, say we have that in abundance already. From that simple insight, I believe we can devise an approach actually quite similar to what we have stumbled into already. That is, we should offer substantial help to people who resided here and became homeless, and thus we can hope can recover their former lives, offering job counseling and even security deposits for their own places.



But for the vagabond component, I think we should continue to follow the law, but do nothing to encourage more hobos to head on down. The shelter should continue to be a shelter, not a home, with minimal comforts. Actual illegal behavior should continue to be legally prosecuted by our

hard-working police, jailing panhandlers outside their zones and open container violators. Please, don’t beat the offenders on the way to jail, but let it be known up north that, if part of your Keys plan is getting publicly drunk on money you beg for, you better like jail time as well.



Miami has spent a year challenging Pottinger and an in-process new agreement with the ACLU would exempt sexual predators, pitched tents, and cooking fires from legal protection. We should watch and work with Miami to clarify which Pottinger behaviors should, in fact, be constitutionally protected.



The hardest part is asking some of the finest people I know to question the effect of their heartfelt, generous feeding of our hobos. In your hearts, please admit how many of those taking your free food  use the money they save to further abuse themselves with their addiction of choice. Such kindness actually enables behavior not only degrading to our community but to the food recipients themselves.  People who could benefit from tough love suffer when such soft love leaves them following their paths to self-destruction.



Again, I will continue a longer version of this column for our E-Blast.

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