KEY WEST, Florida – Key West’s waterfronts are among the most beautiful places in the world to watch the sun come down, and while the sunset itself is free, the choicest real estate from which to watch it certainly isn’t. On Sunset Key, a private island just off the coast served by an air-conditioned ferry and closed to non-residents, homes with a truly choice view can range from $6 to $20 million or more.

Yet plutocrats who can afford such prices aren’t the only ones to be found here, because even in America’s paradise, there’s a surprising degree of poverty – and, as ever, the Catholic Church long has been on the front lines of responding to it.

“I would say [the Church] is a front-runner” both in money and manpower, said Emily Nixon, Deputy Director of the Star of the Sea Foundation, which oversees Key West’s SOS Callahan Kitchen – the largest food distribution nonprofit in the county.

Nixon, who isn’t Catholic, told Crux the Church is “willing to put money on the table to fund organizations who are working directly in the communities,” in addition to “staff and personnel.”

“The fact that they’re funding those positions, and willing to actually help the more grassroots small organizations that don’t have the same capital resources, shows they really do prioritize it, and shows that they prioritize it more so than their money does,” she said, noting that the Archdiocese of Miami is not only a regular supporter of the SOS kitchen, but was a leader in the post-disaster cleanup following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“It’s a lot easier for people to give money than time,” she said. “The archdiocese is giving money for sure, but they’re also giving time and personnel resources, which, for a small organization like SOS, that’s equally pivotal as the financial resources,” she said.

Such dual support would undoubtably be appreciated in any context, but it is perhaps felt more acutely in the Florida Keys, and more specifically, Monroe County, to which the Keys belong. Roughly 52 percent of the population in Monroe County is either living in poverty or on the verge of it, an especially worrying trend, locals say, due in part to increasing income disparity.

“Like the rest of the country, we’ve noticed a diminishing of the middle class, so it’s kind of like either/or down here. Every other person is a week or two away from homelessness,” said Megan Hall, Program Director for Catholic Charities in Monroe County.

Key West actually ranks third in the nation for cities with the greatest income disparity, rooted largely in the fact that it’s an expensive tourist destination where rents can be astronomical, yet local jobs are low-paying, forcing many residents to work at least two or three jobs just to pay bills.

According to Hall, those living in poverty in Key West reflect “the full spectrum,” including people with disabilities, veterans, seniors, immigrants and refugees, convicts fresh out of prison and trying to make their way, and the average joe.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many “snowbirds” buy real estate in Key West and only use it for part of the year, leaving the property vacant otherwise. With the unique geographical issues the island faces, there are restrictions on where new housing can be built, making it difficult for locals to afford actually living in the city.

One measure of the stress all this generates is the suicide rate. Monroe County, Hall said, generally has “a very high rate as opposed to the rest of the state and the nation,” with renters being especially at risk.

In response, Catholic Charities in the area runs a number of programs assisting immigrants, the homeless and prisoners. They also back initiatives aimed at fighting human trafficking and increasing support for access to mental health resources, including psychiatrists.

According to Patrice Schwermer, Outreach Coordinator for Catholic Charities in Monroe County, they were recently awarded a grant to hire a mental health counselor in response to “huge need.”

“One thing about housing, which is very interesting and very telling, is that even our agencies and the schools find it difficult to hire people to come to live and work here, because they can’t find affordable housing,” she said.

Catholic Charities also partners closely with the SOS kitchen, which is the largest food distribution company in the county.

What started out as a small outreach program to help struggling parishioners at the Catholic Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West soon exploded into a massive project to help the entire community, with locations in Key West, Stock Island and Key Largo.

One of the few distribution centers able to provide fresh foods such as salads, fruits and vegetables, the kitchen mostly serves children and elderly, either though established programs or finding areas of highest need in the community.

The kitchen separated from the Church in 2009 by opening its own 501c3, allowing it to receive government funding and donations from local grocery stores, including Publix, Winn-Dixie and several local grocers and bakeries.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, its role was cemented as a go-to place for struggling residents. Though SOS itself sustained some $180,000 in damage, that didn’t stop them from distributing roughly a million pounds of food in the first month after the storm, an amount that they would typically process over six or seven months.

With a staff of just 12 people, SOS “worked around the clock,” depending largely on volunteers to help process the donations that arrived, organize them, and distribute them. Donations included anything from food, to sunscreen, bug spray and cleaning supplies.

“We think that we did about 400 percent more during that first month than we did during the previous six or eight months,” Nixon said, noting that while many people left the Keys after Irma, their distribution numbers did not go down, since others who had previously been fine suddenly found themselves struggling.

Nixon said the Archdiocese of Miami stepped in as a major player in relief efforts, helping to facilitate large corporate donations as well as small, local donations, with most of the funds filtering through SOS.

“That really showed they’re willing to back up what they preach on a daily basis,” she said, adding that as a non-Catholic, “it was nice to see that this huge entity, which I think in a lot of people’s minds is more just kind of a figurehead, actually was working one-on-one with an organization and actually was taking the time to follow up.”

Catholic Charities also stepped in, providing support through grants assisting with rent, utility and mortgage payments. According to Hall, after Irma hit, they were able to work with different partners to provide “quite substantial financial supports.”

Grant providers included United Way of the Florida Keys, the American Red Cross and even the Miami Dolphins.

For Schwermer, she sees her role as trying to take the energy that comes during disaster relief and harness it to the day-to-day needs of the community, targeting and addressing the underlying causes of poverty in the area, principally through Catholic social teaching.

“It’s easy for people to write a check to a charitable organization, it’s easy to volunteer at the food pantry, but it’s much more challenging when we really have to look underneath about what’s happening,” she said, adding that it is far more uncomfortable to face issues such as “unjust (economic) systems” and racism.

“All of that is so important in our faith, because human dignity is the basis of our teaching, and the dignity of every human life,” she said, calling Catholic social doctrine “the Church’s best-kept secret.”

She praised Pope Francis for his attention to issues such as poverty, immigration and the environment, voicing her belief that his message can be hard for some people to take in an increasingly polarized environment.

Schwermer said she thinks the Church, and the wider population, needs to be challenged on these issues, and the overall ability to show solidarity to those in need.

“We set up economic institutions that are beneficial to many of us who have income and who are doing well,” she said, but a truly beneficial model is one that looks “at the common good” and enables people to enjoy “the fullness of life.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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