By Gwen Filosa

January 20, 2018 11:07 AM

Key West’s overnight homeless shelter is deteriorating but it remains a safe, clean place for men and women who have no other place to sleep, according to City Manager Jim Scholl.

He made the comment in the face of allegations of unfit conditions from an employee who was fired during the Hurricane Irma disaster.

The shelter, owned by the city, is managed by the nonprofit Southernmost Homeless Assistance League for about $440,000 a year.

“I go out there periodically,” Scholl told the Key West City Commission this week. “I don’t ever call them and tell them I’m coming.”

On a recent visit to the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter, 5537 College Road, the shelter was properly stocked with blankets on a cold night and they were clean, he said.

“Everybody seemed to be in reasonably good spirits,” said Scholl. “KOTS is certainly not a hotel environment; we’re working very hard to be able to transition to a new facility. The deterioration on some of the elements out there is significant but it’s not to the point of total failure yet.”

The city is saving any money it would spend on KOTS for a new shelter. For years, the city has been saying it would relocate the shelter to another site on College Road to settle a lawsuit filed by nearby condo owners who don’t want it next door.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay has said it’s time for KOTS to move from county property next to his headquarters.

“It’s a fairly Spartan environment out there but it’s safe and when I’ve been out there it’s reasonably clean and functional,” Scholl said.

The shelter director was fired during the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Mike Tolbert said he opened the shelter against the opinion of then-SHAL Executive Director John Miller and that’s why he was fired.

Miller, who held the job for four years, would never discuss the issue publicly. He recently resigned and is leaving the Keys. That decision was made months ago and is not related to the investigation, said SHAL’s board chairman, Rick Casey.

Casey said the board took the allegations very seriously but after a complete review, including an interview with the fired employee, Tolbert, they all were determined to be false. The allegations were from a disgruntled employee who had been fired, he added.

“I know it’s happened to the city,” Casey said. “It’s the unfortunate result of a termination.”

City Commissioner Sam Kaufman said SHAL had never shared its policy with the city about barring people who have been given a free bus ticket out of the Keys.

Such people sign a form saying they won’t return to use the shelter. SHAL said of about 263 people on its voluntary relocation list from 2014 to now, 19 returned and were given some services, including a pregnant woman.

“We were snowbirding people on our money,” Elicia Pintabona, the new interim executive director of SHAL, said of the reason behind the policy. “It’s not a heartless thing. If it’s cold, we let them stay. It’s not a metal gate coming down for them.”

About 20 homeless people are on a suspension list for misbehavior, she said.

gfilosa@keynoter.com