BY GWEN FILOSA
Wayne Walls figures the dark green mattress he sleeps on at Key West’s overnight homeless shelter came from the jail. It resembles an inmate’s bunk, thin and lumpy, but does the job of separating a man from the floor.
Doesn’t matter. He says he is grateful for the place to lay his head after a day of landscape work out at the Navy’s Boca Chica air field.
“It’s better than sleeping on concrete,” Walls said the other evening, smoking a cigarette at the open-air space that is the shelter’s living room. A dozen men and some women milled about while others quietly sat in front of a modest television watching a movie.
It was cold for Key West, and Walls wore an orange windbreaker. A shelter worker checked through backpacks of the incoming homeless, looking for banned items such as drugs and booze and weapons.
“They do the best they can with what little funding,” Walls said. “Everything I’m wearing came from here. They got me a job the first day I got here. If you want to work, they get you work.”
Key West, famed for its excess in luxury vacations and destination weddings, spares every cent it can on its homeless shelter, dubbed the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter and located on a ratty corner of the Sheriff’s Office property on Stock Island, 5537 College Road.
It survives on under $435,000 a year, managed by the nonprofit Southernmost Homeless Assistance League, and although only a couple of miles from Duval Street, it’s worlds away from the art galleries and gingerbread-trimmed homes.
In an area that supports an $8.4 million animal shelter, a $19 million City Hall and a $30 million Truman Waterfront Park, the homeless shelter has no political will backing it for new services or additions.
Walls, 45, who arrived in Key West six months ago and has been at the shelter for a week, got the bunk from the city and the job from shelter director Mike Tolbert, who treats the homeless men — “clients” as they’re called in the nonprofit world — like you’d treat your buddies from work or the poker game.
“I’ve been here forever so I have a lot of connections,” Tolbert said. “I can get them something.”
On a Saturday in March, Tolbert who came in on his day off, rounded up some volunteers and spent the morning power-washing the inside of the white-painted bunkhouses to remove the grit and grime that comes with Key West’s climate.
“To get them into a self-sustaining lifestyle, that’s our job,” said John Miller, SHAL’s executive director. “If they want warehousing, they can look for someone else.”
Many of the men who sleep at KOTS have had some hard luck that they said left them out in the street.
Divorce, job losses, health care or simply a failure at keeping up with the material world and being locked in a world of day labor, living week to week and paycheck to paycheck.
In February, on average 98 people slept at the shelter off College Road and a total of 225 different individuals staying there. Case workers help men and women obtain legal identification, including birth certificates.
The shelter is seeking donations of work boots. Someone dropped off a new washer last month. A local named T.J. Goss dropped off $300 worth of hamburgers from a fast-foot joint. Along with the generosity of Key West proper, nonprofits across the Lower Keys offer other services.
“If you can’t find help in Key West then there’s something wrong,” said Jamie Crenshaw, 36, who’s been at KOTS for a couple weeks, having moved down from Brevard County after losing his job.
“I’d rather be down here,” he said. “It’s warm.”
Crenshaw, who prefers to sleep on his vinyl mattress outside the bunkhouse, where men sleep inches away from one another, said not every homeless man wants to work himself out from under the bottom rung.
“The other day Mike said, ‘I need three guys to unload a truck.’ Three of us raised our hands,” Crenshaw said.
Those three wound up with paying jobs, he added.
To settle a lawsuit by nearby condo owners, the city decided in 2013 to move the shelter off the county property. But nothing more than sketches and estimates have been brought up by staff and the commission has stalled on making a decision.
“Sad, isn’t it?” Mayor Craig Cates said. “There’s some [support] on the commission but just not enough to make it happen. The only thing that’s holding it up is the will to move forward with some kind of project. Some on the commission don’t want the city to pay for it. When another group offers to pay for it, some on the commission don’t want them to handle the project. We just can’t come together.”
Cates said he no longer is calling for a 24-hour shelter but says it’s still a better way to manage Key West’s homeless issue, rather than force the men and women to leave the overnight shelter by 7:30 a.m. with no public safety net available until 6 p.m. that night.
“There’s a few that cause them to get a bad rap,” Cates said of the city’s homeless.
When early estimates more than a year ago came in at $1 million to move the shelter to another spot on College Road, on city property known as the former Easter Seals building, government critics seized on it.
Then-City Commissioner Tony Yaniz said he didn’t want anything more than U.S. troops were getting overseas in war-torn countries and had visions of luxuries like air conditioning and ice cream — neither available at KOTS — being added to a shelter that can hold 140 sleeping souls on any given night.
Walls isn’t complaining about the simplistic nature of KOTS. The other day he told a visitor about his life without exuding a drop of self pity: A 19-year Army vet turned day laborer who has terminal cancer, Walls said he moved to Key West from Hollywood, Fla. He said his girlfriend just died of an overdose after a lengthy heroin addiction.
“She would have been 35 on the 23rd,” Walls said. Their dream was to get a boat and live out the rest of his life — doctors gave him 36 months to live, he said.
Walls remains just a man who wants a job and a spot to call his own, however thin the mattress.
“I’m still going to do it without her,” Walls said. “That’s where my heart sent me.”
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen