by Mandy Miles

January 19, 2018

A long-awaited report on the city’s homeless shelter Wednesday evening answered some questions, but prompted others at the Key West City Commission meeting, where elected officials ultimately agreed to move forward with the new leaders of the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter, which is run by the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League.

Rick Casey, chairman of the SHAL board, presented a report and answered commissioners’ questions about prior allegations and accusations about the shelter that had come from a terminated former employee.

“During the hurricane evacuation, the organization’s shelter director was terminated,” Casey said. “That person subsequently made claims, in writing, to the SHAL board, the city commissioners and others. Four members of our executive committee did a complete review and in my opinion, the majority of the claims were an unfortunate result of an employee termination. The claims being made fell into the categories of personal opinions, exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims that lacked support or documentation.”

Casey said that an independent audit and review of the shelter’s finances showed that claims of financial mismanagement and misappropriation are patently false.

He acknowledged that there were 17 cases of scabies among KOTS occupants, a figure that Commissioner Sam

Kaufman said was unprecedented and too high. Although Kaufman wanted assurances that it would not happen again, Casey found support from other commissioners, who agreed that the skin ailment is easily spread in crowded areas.

But interim executive director Elicia Pintabona assured the commission that KOTS is now requiring users to shower before entering each evening.

“Now that the soup kitchen is providing us with meals, we’re able to require clients to shower before entering the facility each night,” Pintabona said, adding that all blankets and linens are properly washed with germicide.

City Manager Jim Scholl told the commission he had visited KOTS on a recent chilly evening, and said, “While KOTS is obviously not a hotel environment, and there is a deterioration of certain elements as the city works to move out of that location, there were enough blankets that were clean and inventoried, and while it’s a fairly spartan environment, it’s safe, reasonably clean and functional.”

One of Kaufman’s other concerns involved a list of people who had allegedly been banned from the shelter. Kaufman said his list showed 380 people had been banned, while Casey and Pintabona said the actual number was 25 people, five of whom are currently incarcerated.

People can be suspended from KOTS for varying amounts of time for rule violations that include violence, fighting and introduction of contraband such as alcohol or drugs into the facility. The longer list to which Kaufman was referring, Pintabona said, was a relocation list of people who had accepted a free bus ticket from SHAL to leave the Florida Keys.

In accepting those bus tickets, the recipients agree they will not utilize the services of KOTS if they return to Key West.

“We were snowbirding people,” Pintabona told the commission, meaning SHAL was paying for bus tickets for people who would return again and again when the weather elsewhere got cold.

Commissioner Margaret Romero said she had no problem with SHAL attaching such conditions to the free bus tickets they provide.

“I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing here tonight,” she said.

Kaufman agreed to pursue a positive working relationship with the new shelter managers, but emphasized the importance of keeping Key West Police and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office “in the loop” with regard to suspended individuals and those on the relocation list. Pintabona assured him she would do that, and added that KOTS doesn’t turn away a client who is brought to the shelter by a law enforcement officer.

In other City Commission activities….