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Vagrants tax Key West as tourist capital

KEY WEST — Even the welcoming, tropical tourist town of Key West — with slogans "Come as you are" and "One Human Family" — has a limit when it comes to tolerating free spirits.

In the past two months, Key West police have arrested more than 70 vagrants for "quality of life" offenses: aggressive panhandling, trespassing, fighting, public intoxication, defecating on public property, using residents' outdoor showers and electricity.

And the crackdown — spurred by complaints from residents, business owners and visitors — is about to get a financial boost from the federal government: $813,000 in stimulus funds.

The money will pay for four new police officers for three years, assigned primarily to quality-of-life issues. The police department is in the process of hiring the officers, which will patrol public beaches, parks and other homeless hangouts.

Key West police Chief Donnie Lee, a native of the island, said the city doesn't want a repeat of 2003, when the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty named Key West one of the country's "meanest" cities for the homeless.

Lee said he'd rather provide the downtrodden with help than a ride to the county jail — but compassion can go only so far. Though local advocacy groups say many homeless suffer from mental illness or addiction, Lee said the island's police have no choice but to deal with those who break the law.

Theo Glorie, owner of Coffee Plantation, said he initially tolerated a homeless man sleeping in an opening under the porch of his downtown Key West coffee shop. That changed when he discovered the man had tapped into his business' electrical outlet.

"He used an extension cord to hook up a window air-conditioning unit," Glorie said. "I told him, 'You're evicted. This is too much.' "

• • •

Key West has always attracted drifters, first pirates and rumrunners, then drug smugglers and partiers in search of the next margarita. Like tourists, they flock to the Southernmost City when temperatures dip in the rest of the country. About 450 homeless people now live on the streets of Key West and nearby Stock Island, according to a homeless advocacy group.

The area has four emergency shelters, four transitional shelters and six permanent facilities with beds for the homeless and others who need help. But many still choose to sleep in the mangroves, on beaches, in alleys, on boats that barely float and on an undeveloped island accessible by dinghy.

On a weekday morning, Key West police Officer Stephen Mitchell made the rounds of the daytime homeless haunts. Stop one: Bayview Park, where several regulars spend hours talking, sleeping and drinking near an elementary school.

He chatted with John Hughes, arrested nine times in Monroe County for crimes that include burglary and drug possession.

"Not drinking today," Hughes told the officer. "But people like us can't afford to drink in the bar, so sometimes we got to sneak it."

"And Mitchell," he added, "you know we're not out here to do no bad."

Two days later, Hughes was back in jail. At a bar, he stole a New York tourist's designer purse and attempted a getaway on a stolen moped.

A few stops later: Higgs Beach, a popular hangout for the homeless, about a 15-minute walk from the park with a gorgeous ocean view.

The public beach's five covered picnic tables usually are monopolized by vagrants. But on the day Mitchell patrolled, cold, windy weather had sent seven homeless men and women huddling against the historic West Martello Tower museum and garden club. One had ordered pizza.

Mitchell asked to see the ID of a new guy he didn't recognize. Oscar Rodriguez, 54, said he came to Key West from Fort Lauderdale looking for work: landscaping, roofing, anything.

"Two weeks ago, I went into the hospital for a cough and came out with cancer," he said, the medical bracelet from nearby Lower Keys Medical Center still on his wrist.

Rodriguez, arrested by Key West police six weeks earlier for trespassing, added: "We're not bad people. Well, some of us are. But not all of us."

Across the street at the public dog park, one homeless man was cooking burgers and a roast on a makeshift grill for a group of 10, including David Clevenger, homeless since 2005 when Hurricane Wilma destroyed his residence.

Clevenger, 56, came to Key West from Iowa 15 years ago. With a burglary rap sheet, he's among those facing more scrutiny from police.

"People have been coming down here to Mile Zero to reinvent themselves for a century," he said. "But more of them are coming now, crowding the island, which makes it difficult for us and for you."

Lee, the police chief, said there is a desperate need for a day center to provide the homeless a "one-stop shop" for services and socialization.

• • •

The city's history with the homeless has been divided between those who want to help and those who want them gone. Former Assistant City Manager John Jones, who called them "chronic public nuisances," attempted to ship some homeless to Miami in 2003. Public outcry stopped that. A plan to build chickee huts for shelter also got nixed.

Wendy Coles, executive director of the Key West-based Southern Homeless Assistance League, does not fault the police. But she said putting the homeless in jail "only hides them from the tourists."

She said the best solution is long-term care for mental health and substance abuse issues. "These services are minimal in our rural area," she said. "This is not paradise if you are homeless."

At Simonton Beach, Mitchell found David Martin sleeping on the concrete next to a three-wheel cycle filled with what's left of his life.

Martin is 51, but his weathered skin and disheveled gray beard make him look decades older. He said he once was a champion ballroom dancer who came to the Keys 11 years ago selling electric car rentals. But he suffers from anemia and hasn't worked in five years.

Now, he often starts his day with Rumplemintz, a potent peppermint concoction.

"I'm not homeless because I drink; I drink because I'm homeless," Martin said. "The truth: I hope I lay down one night and never wake up. My soul would go somewhere peaceful."

Vagrants tax Key West as tourist capital 03/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 28, 2010 11:37pm]

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