PHOTO/ PRU SOWERS
Key West City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, left, and Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay listen at Wednesday’s housing forum.
No agreement at homeless shelter forum
Three hours of passionate discussion failed to find consensus between city and county officials Wednesday over the looming deadline of where to locate the city’s only overnight homeless shelter.
The joint meeting between Key West city commissioners and the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners was the first in perhaps a decade, according to Key West City Manager Bob Vitas, and was called to address the March 18 expiration of an five-year agreement between the two entities to jointly operate the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS) on College Road on Stock Island. While the city foots the $440,000 bill for shelter operations, the county Sheriff’s Office houses the shelter in a building on its property. That agreement is what county Sheriff Rick Ramsay intensely wants to end.
“The sheriff’s office has been carrying a lot of water on this for a long time,” Ramsay told the assembled officials. “The sheriff’s office was never designed to do it long term. This was always supposed to be a short term solution.”
Ramsay added that some of his female staff have been harassed by homeless men hanging around the area. Empty bottles and other trash, as well as area resident complaints, make it difficult for the county sheriff’s office to operate effectively, he said.
The agreement between the two entities can be extended on a month by month basis after March 22. However, the county can end the agreement with a 30-day notice, forcing the city to move the shelter. None of the county commissioners proposed to do that, but they were clearly interested in the city coming up with an alternate site for the overnight shelter.
“Where the shelter is located is the major stumbling block here,” said Monroe County Mayor Sylvia Murphy.
Key West officials are also under pressure to look for another location for KOTS because of a lawsuit won earlier by the nearby Sunset Marina homeowners, who sued alleging the city didn’t adhere to its own permitting rules when deciding to install the shelter on College Road. A judge ruled that the city must make a “good faith effort” to find another location. However, if another suitable location cannot be created, the shelter might stay where it is, Vitas said.
Some alternate sites were briefly discussed on Wednesday but none of the commissioners could agree on what to do next. The proposed sites included the former Hawk Missile Site in Little Hamaca Park, the former Easter Seals building on College Road, where the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District staff currently has its offices and the Monroe Juvenile Detention Center building at 5501 College Road. One by one the proposed sites were eliminated until only the former Easter Seals building was left on the table. But even then, there was no agreement on what the next step should be. The only action plan was for Sheriff Ramsay to walk his property on College Road with Key West Mayor Craig Cates to see if there was any room at the back of the lot where the homeless could be housed, possibly in tents or Quonset-style huts.
“I will look at it objectively with Mayor Cates. But I would also like you to objectively look at the Easter Seals building,” Ramsay told the group.
That drew a response from Russ Vickers, president of the Key West Golf Club Homeowners Association, which represents 390 homeowners. His group is “overwhelmingly” against relocating KOTS to the nearby Easter Seals building, he said, adding that homeless people are already squatting under his members’ porches. He said if the city moves ahead with relocating the shelter to the Easter Seals property, the homeowners association would pursue legal operations.
“It’s a problem for us,” Vickers said, referring to the growing number of homeless in the area. “It is very real for us.”
At the end of the meeting, city and county commissioners agreed it had been good to begin the joint discussion and that the homeless issue was a problem both bodies needed to tackle together. But no one was predicting a swift resolution.
“I’m not really sure what we accomplished today,” said county commissioner George Neugent.
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