City won’t investigate charges against homeless shelter

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

Despite claims of fraud and unsanitary conditions at the Stock Island homeless shelter made by the fired former manager of the facility, Key West City Commissioners voted 5-2 on Nov. 8 not to investigate the charges.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman, who has complained about management at the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS) in the past, proposed that City Manager Jim Scholl investigate claims made by Mike Tolbert, the former KOTS director who was fired in September for reopening KOTS after Hurricane Irma without the approval of shelter operator Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (SHAL). Tolbert, who has worked at the shelter for the past four years, then wrote a blistering letter to Kaufman and Scholl accusing SHAL Executive Director John Miller of multiple issues, including mismanaging money allocated to purchase bus tickets for homeless residents to leave the island, unsanitary food preparation areas and unhealthy living conditions for residents. Tolbert said he had seen 17 cases of scabies, a painful, contagious skin condition, at KOTS before he was fired.

“Those mattresses, you wouldn’t let your dog sleep on. They’re torn up. They’re trashed,” Tolbert told commissioners.

“The allegations are very serious. We’ve known for some time that there have been issues with the operator of our homeless shelter,” Kaufman said, adding that the city needs to “consider alternatives” to SHAL managing the facility.

But he was unable to convince his colleagues to take up Tolbert’s claims against SHAL. While Commissioner Billy Wardlow said he might consider an investigation, the fact that Tolbert came forward with his complaints only after he was fired was suspicious.

“I think Mr. Tolbert should have brought this up four years ago when he was working there instead of after he got fired,” Wardlow said.

And Commissioner Margaret Romero said that the city did not have the expertise to investigate fraud complaints. If there is suspicious of fraud, it should be raised with the Florida State Attorney’s office, she said, adding that the Monroe County Health Department should investigate any health complaints.

“At this point, for us to jump in and investigate fraud or health conditions or other things, I think that is out of our realm,” Romero said.

City Manager Scholl said he has “had discussions” with SHAL in the past about its management of KOTS. SHAL is currently undergoing an accounting audit and Scholl will forward a written report from the SHAL board of directors to commissioners when the audit is completed.

“If that’s not sufficient, then we’ll see what the next step needs to be,” Scholl said.

But Kaufman was not satisfied.

“If the allegations are untrue and if they are clearly meritless, why is there resistance to having an investigation,” he asked.

SHAL said it serviced 286 homeless clients in October, with an average 73 people a night sleeping in the shelter.