Key West pressuring county on homeless shelter location



Trying to gage where Key West City Commissioners came down on the issue of relocating the city’s problematic homeless shelter – and possibly hoping to play a little hardball negotiating with Monroe County officials – Mayor Craig Cates got what he wanted recently.

His colleagues agreed they no longer wanted to relocate the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS) at the previously-agreed upon site on College Road. The city owns a 2.6-acre parcel there and had voted in February 2015 to build a new KOTS on one portion, with the rest being used for affordable workforce housing.

But with Hurricane Irma devastating the already-limited affordable housing stock in Monroe County, Cates has been pushing to declare that the entire College Road parcel would be used for a new workforce housing development. But that creates a problem of where to put the new KOTS.

“The homeless shelter is very, very important and so is housing,” Cates said. “I think the priorities have possibly changed to the importance of housing for our residents.”

Cates had floated the idea late last year of moving the 16 elderly residents in Key West’s Bayshore Manor into the new Poinciana Gardens Senior Living Facility, 1664 Dunlap Drive, then using the Bayshore building to house the area homeless. But the immediate outcry from Bayshore residents and staff against the idea was enough to convince county commissioners to reject that trial balloon.

It was clear that Tuesday’s city commission discussion was in part aimed at county officials to pressure them to work with the city to find a new location. But barely mentioned at the meeting was the legal elephant in the room; the fact the city was ordered in 2013 to move KOTS to a new location as a result of a lawsuit brought by the neighboring Sunset Marina condominium association. In fact, both Cates and Commissioner Billy Wardlow called the current location next to the Monroe County Sheriff’s headquarters the “ideal place” for KOTS, ignoring the lawsuit and the fact Sheriff Rick Ramsey has been strongly pushing to move KOTS in order to use the property to build affordable housing for his own staff.

“I don’t want to see [the homeless] out living in the street like there were once before. If worse comes to worse, it may have to be,” Wardlow warned.

“We need to do something in order to assure we don’t have people living on the streets and we don’t have more tent areas come up,” said Commissioner Margaret Romero.

“If you look at it [Monroe County homeless care] like a thermometer, we’re at the bulb of the thermometer holding all the mercury,” added Commissioner Clayton Lopez. “This is not just a Key West problem… they [the homeless] make their way up and down the Keys.”

Most of the other commissioners and Mayor Cates also accused the county of not paying a fair share of the cost to care for the homeless. But county officials have pushed back on that assertion, pointing out the city pays approximately $528,000 a year for KOTS while the county spends an average $6.8 million annually on jail, health and social service costs for the county-wide homeless population. In addition, the county has let the city use the land for the current homeless shelter rent-free.

The entire question of finding a location for KOTS could become moot on Tuesday, when Key West residents will vote on whether to finalize a zoning variance for the 2.6-acre parcel on College Road, allowing any new buildings to rise to 40 feet, up from the current 25-foot limit. If the referendum is voted down, limiting the number of proposed apartment units to 70 from the estimated 104 the 40-foot height would allow, developer interest in the project may disappear, leaving the site open for a new KOTS.

But in the meantime, Cates ended the discussion with an olive branch to county officials, saying Key West needs to find another location for KOTS by working with them to find a solution.

“It’s a win-win if we can work with our county commission to come up with another location that is adequate,” he said.