How a Florida Keys nonprofit is trying to keep working people from becoming homeless

Gwen Filosa
·4 min read

Lori Tiabo knows the painful uncertainty of not knowing whether you will find a home for your family.

“Being homeless is not a good feeling,” Tiabo said.

And wondering whether she’d have a roof over her head for her children coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.

“A lot of shelters weren’t accepting,” Tiabo said.

But now, because of the nonprofit Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, Tiabo has housing for herself and her children, ages 9, 6 and 1. Her 15-year-old son attends boarding school in Georgia.

Without FKOC, which since 1992 has served the homeless and the most vulnerable residents, Tiabo said she would have become homeless with three children about two months ago.

They had been staying with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment starting in January when Tiabo moved to Key West from New York City. But it just wasn’t working out in such close quarters.

“This was a real blessing for me to be able to get into here,” Tiabo, 40, a housekeeper at a Key West hotel, said of FKOC’s housing program. “It’s like a stepping stone to getting an apartment. It’s a safe place to raise my family until I’m ready to see if I can get a place.”

Tiabo, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives with a disability, a degenerative spine disease, shares a three-bedroom apartment with other families. They each have a private bedroom but share the rest of the place. She pays $90 a week and can stay for up to two years.

A domestic abuse survivor, Tiabo said she had been living in New York City, where she was raised, for five years. But things changed and she needed a job. She already was familiar with Key West.

“The best place to go where I can get a job and have family is back to Key West,” Tiabo said. “It’s easy to get jobs here.”

What’s not easy is finding a place to live.

Key West, with a population of just under 25,000, and the rest of the Keys, remains extremely expensive for renters — if you can even find a suitable place that works.

Studios — and in Key West a studio is about 200 square feet — can run $1,600 a month. And most landlords want first and last rent up front, plus a deposit equal to a month’s rent. Food costs more than the mainland. Gas costs more.

Island life here means that even professionals work part-time jobs.

“It’s not as simple as saying, if you work hard enough you can afford a place,” said Stephanie Kaple, executive director of FKOC. “Not in Key West.”

FKOC, with an annual budget of $1.3 million and 10 full-time employees, provides a total of 178 beds in Key West, including emergency shelter, transitional housing and some permanent homes. FKOC also runs a home for mentally ill residents who need help with daily living.

In addition, the nonprofit has a Key West food pantry, Loaves and Fishes, and a Keyswide homeless prevention program, in which FKOC steps in to pay a bill — such as a utility payment, clothes for work or help with the rent — in an effort to keep people in their homes.

FKOC has put out about $100,000 so far this year in the prevention program and expects to have helped 3,000 people by year’s end.

Homeless prevention used to turn some heads, Kaple said.

“People looked at us like we were crazy,” Kaple said. “There is a mindset that we should all be prepared for a bad time. A tire blows on your car. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, that tire can really start a spiral.”

Replacing a $75 tire could stop someone from becoming homeless, Kaple said.

“It takes longer for a family to get out of a shelter than if we step in,” Kaple said.

When the pandemic began, more than 31,000 Monroe County households were one emergency away from financial ruin, according to Florida’s latest ALICE report, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, released this year by the United Way.

“We’ve known that our economy was increasingly reliant on these families we call ALICE, who are financially vulnerable to any emergency,” said Leah Stockton, Keys Area President for United Way of Collier and the Keys. “For thousands of families in our community, COVID-19 became that one universal emergency.”

How to help

There are several ways to donate to FKOC:

  • Make checks payable to FKOC at PO Box 4767, Key West, FL 33041

  • Donate online through Paypal

  • Contact FKOC at 305-293-8189