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2/4/05 - Keys News Service

Homeless zone will cost city, county

By Timothy O'Hara

KEY WEST -- Sheltering the Lower Keys' homeless population will not be cheap and Key West might end up bearing the brunt of the bill.

Assistant City Manager John Jones crunched the numbers for a proposed homeless safe zone on Stock Island and said the city will have to pay $70,000 for sewer lines, showers, electrical work and building permit costs. The city also will have to shell out $188,810 a year to staff and maintain the facility, which will act as a safe haven for the Lower Keys homeless population, Jones said.

The county has agreed to put the safe zone on county-owned property next to the Monroe County Detention Center on Stock Island. The county will allow the small tent city to be there for five years and also is considering donating $50,000 in tents, trailers and other furnishings for the camp, Jones said.

County leaders have rejected contributing more to the shelter effort because many believe homelessness is a city problem.

"This is basically a city issue," county Mayor Dixie Spehar said. "We are willing to partner with the city where we can. There still needs to be more discussion."

During a homeless survey last May, more than 800 people were living in wetlands and parks between Geiger Key and Stock Island, with nearly 400 living in Key West, Jones said. Counters surveyed the Keys from a sheriff's department helicopter using a night vision camera so the homeless could be counted where they slept.

The city and county must build a safe zone for homeless people if government leaders want to keep them from sleeping in parks, sidewalks and environmentally sensitive wetlands. A Miami-based court case set a precedent that prohibits cities from removing homeless from public property or putting them in jail unless the governments provide a place for them to go.

Recently city business and community leaders have pushed to get the homeless away from tourists and out of the tourism corridors, such as Mallory Square.

Dozens of homeless people also populate the shaded picnic tables at the county-owned Higgs Beach. The county for years has wanted to give Higgs Beach to the city but Key West officials have resisted.

"This is a city and county problem," City Commissioner Harry Bethel said. "It's frustrating for me. I don't mind our taxpayers paying for things that directly benefit us but this is going to benefit us and the county."

The two governments have not agreed on which government agency will pay the $25,000 annual utility costs. Monroe County Sheriff Rick Roth agreed to pay the utility out of his department's budget, but the county attorney wants the city to pay the bill, Jones said.

All costs are still tentative and neither the county nor the city commissions have formally agreed to fund the project.

Neither the city nor the county has budgeted for the safe zone project. The money will have to come from city reserves, city officials said.

"We don't have this budgeted, but we have to do it," Jones said. "We have to do deal with the homeless problem before it gets out of control."

Funding for the safe zone comes as the city commission battles with getting spending under control. The commission on Tuesday discussed limiting funding for Key West-based social service agencies, but several commissioners rejected the move and kept it off the March ballot as a question to city voters. The city also had to pull nearly $30,000 from reserves this fiscal year to help balance the general fund balance.