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If you come to Key West looking for cloying sentiment and valentine platitudes, you may be in for a big surprise. Especially if you're hoping for a secluded space for that romantic sunrise walk on the beach.
Key West has always attracted drifters; first pirates and rumrunners, then drug smugglers and partiers in search of the next margarita. Like tourists, vagrants flock to the Southernmost City when temperatures dip in the rest of the country and most are drawn to the beach. About 450 homeless people "reside" in Key West and nearby Stock Island, according to a local homeless advocacy group.
During the past three years, one of the "rewards" with which I find myself ever the most intrigued by is the vagrants, bums, and otherwise homeless individuals that roam the streets, park themselves at the public shelters and loiter with a sense of ownership on the numerous benches that line the Key West Aids Memorial at the south end of White Street and Atlantic Avenue. I've discovered that even the welcoming tropical tourist town of Key West, complete with slogans, "Come as You Are" and "One Human Family" (I've got a few of those stickers plastered on my bicycle and stashed in my collection of touristy ephemera--perhaps hoping to one day tell tales of grand adventures to my grandchildren.), is simply full of hundreds of people trying to make a living by capitalizing on a general tourist who is sure to be lured by the bum's simple talent. Some paint, some dance, some juggle while on a unicycle. Others are more established and rent booths or set up tables to read palms, sell self portraits, chalk out lovely sunsets, string beads, paint names on shells, braid/bead hair, or perhaps they might set up a corner street performance for which they've jockeyed amongst other "bums" to ensure the corner is theirs for the night.
For many homeless in Key West, a view of the ocean is part of the experience, and quality of life can mean securing a well-hidden sleeping spot on the beach. "If you have to be homeless, do it in Key West," said one anonymous guy while playing Spades with his friends at Higgs Beach. He said he has been living on the streets of Key West for nearly 20 years.
Most of these folks are harmless and very few will ever approach you to beg for a penny. They will smile when you smile at them, and they wave in return; they love children, and aside from their busker activities, they pretty much stick to themselves or loiter with their comrades.
For a while now, there has been talk of moving the current soup kitchen and other homeless services to the Easter Seals property on Stock Island. There the homeless would be provided a food and clothing pantry, a soup kitchen, showers, laundry, counseling, a place to hang out during the day time, and so forth. The theory is, all of the homeless people will flock to that center. The "theory," however, is incorrect. Most of the homeless people will not flock there, except, perhaps, to get a bite to eat and use the facilities. Otherwise, they are more than skeptical. And, although they can legally be forced to do it, many have bicycles and will find themselves continuing to wander around Key West proper. After all, like the rest of us, they have as much right to use the city’s sidewalks, parks and beaches as anyone else.
You should note that I’m speaking here of the homeless people who have adopted living on the street as their way of life. I’m not speaking of people who recently became homeless for this or that reason, who are in a state of shock, who are desperate for help, or the young runaways. That group of homeless people can be helped, if they are reached quickly enough. They are the people the shelters like Florida Keys Outreach Coalition and Samuel’s House in Key West have a real chance of returning to mainstream living. Yet these are not the people Key West proper is trying to move to Stock Island. It’s the long-term street people some permanent Key West residents want to move to the connecting Island – the vagrants, the bums.
But, I argue, these are the people who really add an element of harmless interest and charm to the daily excursions for tourists and residents alike. They are a significant part of what makes Key West, Key West!
If you're at the Aids Memorial, you'll see a group of them playing bocci ball across the street, a few loitering at the African Cemetery and others might be seen playing cards at Higgs park under the shelters. Many have their Social Security Checks, retirement checks and VA benefits sent to a PO Box at the Key West main post office and do their best to survive off that amount. Many are military veterans, and I personally think they've earned their right to drift from town to town. Meanwhile, others collect similar monies and supplement their incomes with "real" jobs sweeping streets, waiting tables or otherwise working in the service industry.
In case you're still concerned, Key West authorities continually arrest vagrants for "quality of life" offenses; aggressive panhandling, trespassing, fighting (they typically do this amongst themselves due to territorial battles [who sleeps where] or because they're accusing one another of cheating at a game of Chess), public intoxication (if you give money to one of the vagrants, chances are he/she is going to buy alcohol), defecating on public property and using home owners' outdoor showers and electricity. Interestingly, the Obama administration's stimulus funds of 2010 provided $813,000 in financial assistance…putting more police on the beat to help patrol public beaches, parks and homeless hangouts. That's stirred a bit of controversy among the homeless population who feel they are being targeted, especially with regards to the open-container law that isn't enforced on tourists but gets bums (most of whom are just sitting around chiding one another about nonsense) tossed into jail and fined...which ultimately means they have to stay in jail longer because they can't pay the fine.
Still, in efforts to avoid a title such as "Meanest City for Homeless," Key West is working to provide help rather than a ride to county jail. However, compassion can only go so far. While many of the homeless suffer from mental illness and addictions, police have no choice but to deal with those who blatantly break the law and cause disruptions.
Bottom line, don't let the "bums" intimidate you! Ride your bikes, swim on the beach and enjoy your visit. If you have dinner and don't eat it all, consider having it put in a doggy bag, and as you walk back to your car or are strolling by the beach toward your hotel or condo, hand the bag to one of the vagrants. Even though they didn't ask for it, they will be ever so grateful. Don't make a big show; just hand it to him/her and continue on your merry way. You'll feel good, and they'll have a nice bite to eat that night without having to dip into their meager finances.
After all, the joy of your visit to Key West is all about the vibe anyway, right? Just go with it and ride the wave of good karma!