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Trouble in paradise: The mechanics of social needs

Patrice Schwermer, the Keys outreach coordinator for Catholic Charities.

Photographer: Handout

Patrice Schwermer, the Keys outreach coordinator for Catholic Charities.

KEY LARGO | How do social needs grow in a paradise like the Florida Keys? Priests and benevolence workers spelled out several factors, including:

Cost of living. Nearly everything comes from the mainland.

A housing shortage, because of limited land and population caps. Public officials need to evacuate people fast in the event of a storm surge. Many people have multiple roommates and work more than one job.

Lack of jobs. "It's not just the economy; it's also the skill-set," said Father Stephen Hilley of St. Justin Martyr Church, Key Largo.

Lack of transportation. People who work in Key West often live on other keys. And some people in Homestead take buses to jobs in the Keys, as far south as Marathon.

The shortage even hits the groups that try to alleviate it, said Patrice Schwermer, Keys outreach coordinator for archdiocesan Catholic Charities.

"In Key West, nonprofits can't hire and keep case managers -- they can't find affordable housing," she said. "And most of us know someone who can't find a place to live, or who had to leave because they can't afford it."

Catholic Charities has run a specialized outreach to the Keys since 1999, concentrating on housing on Key West. The outreach includes St. Bede's Village for the disabled, and St. Theresa Family Housing for those with children.

Also on Key West is a 21-bed workforce dormitory for working men like waiters, bartenders and bus drivers. Catholic Charities aims to help them save money to move into more permanent housing.

As the Catholic Charities website says: "We serve people not because they are Catholic; we serve people because we are Catholic."

Related story: Hungry, homeless in Nirvana

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