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Hungry, homeless in 'Nirvana'

Catholics and others join forces to help the poor in the Florida Keys

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Father Stephen Hilley of St. Justin Martyr shows some of the foods he stocks for the poor on Key Largo.

Photographer: Jim Davis

Father Stephen Hilley of St. Justin Martyr shows some of the foods he stocks for the poor on Key Largo.

KEY LARGO | A new air conditioner isn’t always a big deal, but it is when hungry people need it.

So St. Justin Martyr rejoiced when the parish recently got a grant from a benevolent organization to cool one of its rooms in the parish hall. That room helps feed more than 100 people per week.

It's only one of several benevolent ministries by St. Justin and other organizations in the Florida Keys. With churches, charities and local companies along a 100-plus-mile stretch, they try to hold back a tide of hunger, homelessness and unemployment in what most people see as a mere string of island playgrounds.

"The Keys, for some reason, attract people who are homeless and desperate," said Father Stephen Hilley, pastor at St. Justin. "They think it's Nirvana here, but you still have to go to work and feed your family. And there are only so many jobs."

St. Justin's list of outreaches hints at how basic the human needs can get in the Keys.

A food bank gives out canned goods, frozen chicken, bread and vegetables via Feeding South Florida. The two-year-old program serves about 100 people per week.

St. Justin recently installed a new cooling unit in its storage room, a space of 115 square feet in its parish hall, made possible with a $30,000 grant from the Ocean Reef Community Foundation, a benevolent group in Key Largo.

The church's Early Learning Center serves breakfast, lunch and snacks to 75-80 children. And the children get tuition aid via the Early Learning Coalition, with 85 percent of them receiving full support of $145-$150 a week.

St. Justin gets deliveries of food from SOS Foundation, a nonprofit corporation founded by the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West.  SOS delivers to sites from Key West to Key Largo -- more than 1.5 million pounds of food to thousands of hungry mouths each year. Its pantry is twice the size of the largest one in Miami, according to a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter.

SOS also supplies a range of items like clothes, furniture, baby food, soap, shampoo, dog and cat food, even adult underwear. Its $4 million budget is patched together from governments, foundations and individuals, NCR reported.

Living without a living wage

How bad can life in the Keys get? The archdiocesan Catholic Charities supplied some numbers.

In Key West, the top one percent earn $3.3 million; for the bottom 99 percent, it's about $55,000, said Deacon Richard Turcotte, Catholic Charities’ CEO. What's more, a living wage in the Keys is about $72,000, he said.

Father Stephen Hilley of St. Justin Martyr shows the sign the church puts out for the poor on Key Largo.

Photographer: Jim Davis

Father Stephen Hilley of St. Justin Martyr shows the sign the church puts out for the poor on Key Largo.

And it's not just newcomers who are caught in the money squeeze, Deacon Turcotte said. "A lot of the homeless are full-time employees, residents, taxpaying citizens. Most wage earners have multiple part-time or quarter-time jobs. Because if you miss one paycheck …"

Monroe County, which includes the Keys, is seventh largest in the nation for economic disparity, said Patrice Schwermer, the Keys outreach coordinator for Catholic Charities. And 34 percent of Monroe families live above the poverty level but still struggle to meet basic needs, she added, citing a February report from United Way of the Florida Keys.

"This is one of the most beautiful places, but one of the hardest places to live," Schwermer said. "We need to find out how to make communities sustainable."

South of St. Justin, on Plantation Key, San Pedro has its own outreaches. Like other parishes, the church runs  a "help ministry," offering short-term relief for food, water and electric bills. San Pedro also collects aid for Haiti -- a cause close to the heart of Haiti-born Father Franky Jean, who became pastor in July. 

Homilies are another outreach tool for Father Jean, raising awareness of people's needs. He said that both the problem and the solution sit in his pews.

"The Keys are strange -- you have millionaires living next to the poor," he said. "And they come to the same place to worship."

But it doesn't take a big association or even a church to help. Day after day, Mary Ann Don of Marathon climbs into her 2005 Dodge pickup truck, then collects donations from local stores or Keys Area Interdenominational Resources (KAIR), a pantry in Marathon. She then drives the goods to the needy in places like Tavernier, in the Upper Keys, and Big Pine Key, in the Lower Keys.

"Sometimes I'll drive 300 miles per day," said the 86-year-old, a Keys resident for four decades. "I can work five to eight hours delivering and picking up, and when I return home, I'll find more donations."

Sleeping in the bushes

Besides San Pedro, where she teaches children on weekends, Don also picks up donations at San Pablo Church in Marathon, where she attends daily Mass. This despite the 38 miles between the churches.

"It's not a burden -- it's a joy," said Don, who grew up in Depression-era Michigan. "I was brought up as a child to care for the needy. As long as the Man Above keeps me going, I'll work."

The need for such benevolence may seem slight in the Keys, a haven for scuba divers and sport fishermen. But old-timers like Don know where to look.

She said some of the poor have been found camping in wooded areas of the Keys. She's seen people sleeping on benches at Florida Keys Marathon International Airport. She once saw a woman sleeping on an air-conditioning unit, apparently just to stay off the ground. Another time, she saw a woman huddling behind bushes against the wall of a pancake restaurant.

Don also looks with dismay at the traffic at the KAIR pantry. "You see the lines of people and you don't know where they all come from. And you see the corporate jets flying in and out of the airport, and with all their money -- and you ask 'Why?' "

Connecting the dots of human need with social justice is another facet of church work, said Schwermer, the Catholic Charities worker. She speaks around the Keys on hunger and homelessness, prodding parishioners to work for soup kitchens. She also links advocacy for the poor with other Catholic values, like immigration reform, creation care and opposition to capital punishment.

"I always try to communicate the fullness of what our Catholic social mission is -- that first, we meet Christ when we are in relationship with people who are poor and vulnerable," Schwermer said.

And the workers treasure what success stories they see. Don told of a homeless man who walked into San Pedro, soaking wet from a rainstorm. She gave him dry clothes and canned food for his backpack. She also referred him to KAIR for more assistance.

To her delight, he came to Mass at San Pablo two weeks later, in dress pants and a white shirt. He'd gotten a job waiting tables in a restaurant. 

"He'd gotten on his feet," Don said. "It's a nice feeling to see someone like that."

 Related story: Trouble in paradise: the mechanics of social needs

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