Florida Keys

Keys leaders turn to shipping containers to house volunteers for 20 bucks a night

Monroe County Commissioners Michelle Coldiron and David Rice and former county commissioner George Neugent on March 5, 2019, try out the temporary sleeping quarters built for volunteers at “Volunteer Village” on Big Pine Key.
Monroe County Commissioners Michelle Coldiron and David Rice and former county commissioner George Neugent on March 5, 2019, try out the temporary sleeping quarters built for volunteers at “Volunteer Village” on Big Pine Key. FLKeysNews.com

They don’t look like much. Just a couple of shipping containers filled with metal bunk beds on a dusty gravel lot in the Lower Keys.

But to nonprofit leaders working on the long-term recovery effort from Hurricane Irma, they’re welcome spots.

That’s because housing along the island chain is nearly impossible to find these days for volunteers who come down to help.

“Volunteer Village” opened Tuesday on Big Pine Key behind the Salvation Army building off U.S. 1. People will pay $20 a night a night for a bunk, a sliver of the cost of a hotel room or apartment rental, while they help people rebuild their lives after Irma. On Sept. 10, 2017, the hurricane devastated Big Pine and Marathon while sparing Key West.

Purchased by the Keyswide nonprofit, the Monroe County Long Term Recovery Group, and housed on county-owned land, the two containers hold 10 volunteers each in spaces that measure 40 by 12 square feet. The group hopes to add a third bunkhouse soon.

A shipping container has been turned into temporary housing for volunteers coming to the Florida Keys to help with the long-term recovery after Hurricane Irma, which struck Sept. 10, 2017. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

The shipping containers, which resemble small trailers, are a critical piece in the rebuilding of the Keys.

“Believe me, every bed helps,” said Susan Kent, program director for the Lower Keys Habitat for Humanity, who since Irma routinely has to decline people’s calls to volunteer because of the lack of housing.

“I’ve had to send out hundreds of emails saying, we’d love for you to come help us, we have nowhere to put you,” Kent said. “We always get a lot of people. Right now with spring break going on in a two-month period period I’ve got 124 volunteers scheduled and I’m still getting calls every day.”

Kent said there are several churches in Key West that can house volunteers. One is trying to write a grant to pay for a volunteer village of its own.

The village’s bunks are booked with volunteers from organized groups affiliated with specific projects in the Keys until the end of April. They’re not up for grabs for people who want to come to the Keys on their own.

The Rev. Amy Greene, of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, Tuesday offered a prayer of gratitude for the site.

“We pray that it will continue to be a spot of your sacred holiness, that from this place the community of Marathon and Big Pine and all of the Keys that it will serve, will know they are loved and cared for,” Greene said as about 60 people on Tuesday raised their hands in the air at her request.

“We bless this place.”

Stephanie Kaple, board chair of the long-term recovery group, said, “It’s frustrating that 18 months out we still have so much to do. But it’s invigorating to be here 18 months out and seeing so much progress.”

Kaple said the Keys are rebounding from Irma in ways that can teach other regions how to do it in the future.

“When we started this recovery effort, we were the little chain of islands that many thought could not,” she said. “They didn’t have a lot of faith in us getting back on our feet. We are showing them that not only we are the little islands that could, we are the little islands that are going to redefine how disaster recovery is done.”

Volunteers in the Florida Keys can pay $20 per night, per bunk at the “Volunteer Village” complex on Big Pine Key. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

“This village symbolizes the strong community spirit here in the Keys and offers encouragement to other areas of the state and the nation who are struggling to recover in the challenging months after a natural disaster,” said Michelle Luckett, executive director of the long-term recovery group.

Luckett said nonprofits, contractors, county officials and other locals came together to make the village happen.

The groups who chipped in on the project include the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network, The Miami Foundation, Ocean Reef Community Foundation, United Way of the Florida Keys, St. Vincent De Paul of the Diocese of Greater Miami and the SOS Foundation.

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.