Keys nonprofits say working families in crisis since Hurricane Irma

Some Florida Keys nonprofit leaders see a growing need for basic living supplies and rent since Hurricane Irma struck the island chain Sept. 10.

The SOS Foundation this month opened a pop-up disaster aid store at Key Plaza in Key West off North Roosevelt Boulevard. Within three days, the nonprofit known for its expansive food pantry had 175 new clients registered.

“We usually get 100 in a month,” said Tom Callahan, SOS’ executive director. “These are people who have never before come to us for help.”

The Category 4 Irma, which prompted a mandatory evacuation in the Florida Keys, cost families in lost wages and evacuation expenses such as hotel rooms and road-trip food.

The Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, which provides rental assistance to Florida Keys’ residents, has been inundated with requests for help for a service that typically has a total of just $60,000 to spend each year.

At this post-Irma rate, the funds will be exhausted by December. The new fiscal year, along with state funding, starts in July.

“Since the storm we have well over 60 appointments throughout the county just for people affected by Irma,” said Stephanie Kaple, FKOC’s interim executive director, who called the post-storm rental need a crisis. “People who lost employment, people in the service industry but also hourly employees at the school district. Housekeepers are coming to us.”

In August, the month before Irma, FKOC handed out $17,000 in rental assistance.

“We’re going to lose community members if we can’t help them out at this time,” Kaple said.

“It’s a major crisis and lots of people are still shell-shocked,” said Key West City Commissioner Sam Kaufman, an attorney who is also FKOC’s board chairman. “People were out of work for several weeks. Many employers did not compensate their employees during that time but people still had to pay their rent.”

SOS doesn’t do rental assistance any longer, Callahan said, because they don’t have the administrative staff. But he noticed that post-Irma the demographic of SOS clients has changed.

“We’re getting virtually no homeless,” Callahan said. “It’s people already on the margins, it pushed them over the edge and they’re going to need help.”

On Saturday, starting at 9 a.m., SOS volunteers will hand out new mattresses, fresh fruit and vegetables and toiletries at Mote Marine, 24244 Overseas Highway on Summerland Key. Volunteers are needed, Callahan said.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen