- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

KEY WEST, Fla. - Hidden in the mangrove, about 100 yards from the beaches where tourists sun themselves, Dave Stir sits in the camp where he has lived for two years, barefoot and surrounded by empty beer cans.

“I really try not to hurt anybody or anything,” said the graying 52-year-old, one of dozens of homeless men who call the spot home, sleeping in small tents and keeping their food in plastic crates balanced in mangrove branches.

But city officials say the squatters at this camp and others scattered across Key West must go because they’re damaging the protected and environmentally sensitive mangrove wetlands.

“It looks like it’s not too bad,” Assistant City Manager John Jones said of the area on a recent visit. “But it’s in endangered wetlands. They’re violating the law.”

Police are set to evict camp occupants this week as the city begins enforcing an ordinance that prohibits trespassing in endangered wetlands. More than a dozen of about 40 camps have disappeared since the city posted no trespassing signs last month.

Along with the environmental concerns, there might be another issue.

Such sweeps of the homeless are growing increasingly common in cities that rely on tourism, said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Homeless people are viewed as antitourist. [City officials] don’t want their city to have a bad impression.”

There are few places for the estimated 800 homeless to go on Key West, a 2-mile-by-4-mile island that has no emergency shelters. Transients are drawn to the city by the balmy winter weather and thousands of tourists ripe for panhandling.

Forty percent of the homeless in Key West — where $160,000 condos are classified as affordable housing — hold down a job, said Lou Hernandez, executive director of a coalition of nonprofit groups for the homeless in the Keys. But Mr. Jones said about 40 of these working poor live under a bridge in front of the Hyatt Vacation Club, lining up mattresses on the concrete and coral rock riverbank.

City officials have tried to keep the city clean and tourist-friendly while respecting the civil rights of the homeless. They have succeeded in making the downtown tourist center a no-panhandling zone, but failed with other efforts, including busing transients to Miami.

The latest proposal would create a tent city called a “safe zone” on Stock Island, about 1 miles from downtown, behind the jail and near a landfill dubbed Mount Trashmore. The Monroe County Commission is scheduled to consider the plan on March 17.

The safe zone would have shelters, a trailer with showers and a laundry. The city would provide free bus transportation to downtown and to the local soup kitchen.

It would house about 120 people, but Mr. Jones said he doesn’t expect that many will use it, in part because alcohol and drugs will be prohibited and because the location is inconvenient.

“This is the only area right now that everybody agrees to put them, except the people that we’re going to be putting there,” Mr. Jones said.

The city tried unsuccessfully to put the safe zone in other locations.

“Nobody wants them in their backyard, nobody,” Mr. Jones said.

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