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Francis O'Keefe is educated, erudite, and eloquent. He also has been homeless for the past twenty years. Recently the gray-haired man with questioning blue eyes has found refuge in a park that surrounds the West Miami-Dade Regional Library in Westchester. The library regulars seem to like O'Keefe, who is sober, well-mannered, and a whiz with the computer.
Perhaps it was inevitable, though, that he would offend people who believe it's wrong to sleep on park benches. People like County Commissioner Javier Souto. The library, located on Coral Way at SW 94th Avenue, is in Souto's district. The commissioner holds regular meetings with his constituents there.
Souto has long been known for his outspoken antipathy toward loiterers and vagabonds. According to a 1994 El Nuevo Heraldarticle, he once shocked county bureaucrats by declaring, "The more [homeless people] we have in jail the better." Now, librarians and others believe, Souto has unfairly targeted O'Keefe. A bizarre incident this past July that resulted in the homeless man's arrest and jailing fueled their suspicions.
What would a powerful commissioner want with a mousy 60-year-old homeless guy?
Souto denies he has anything personal against O'Keefe. He says he just wants to discourage homeless people from bothering taxpaying citizens. He acknowledges that, well yes, he does know O'Keefe. "I've seen him around the library, and going around on his bicycle picking up cigarette butts," Souto muses. "I've seen him in shopping centers. I don't know what he does for a living. I don't know where he hides, but I do know we passed a tax for [a homeless program]. We have two or three good places for [homeless people] and I think they should be in those places."
O'Keefe doesn't think he should be in a shelter. He isn't an alcoholic or a drug abuser, and he is mystified about why countless employers have rejected his applications. At times, however, he makes deluded statements and refers to patently unreal scenarios. And he simply ignores friends' and social workers' occasional challenges to these delusions. Overall, though, O'Keefe gets by pretty well. "Everywhere he goes he makes friends," says Elena Prieto, a library employee who has become his chief advocate. "And the story is always the same: 'Oh, how nice Francis is; how educated.'"
Asked about his background, O'Keefe presents a recently acquired copy of his birth certificate that shows he was born in Havana in 1939 to a Cuban mother and an American father. He immigrated to the United States in 1960; both parents, he says, died before the 1959 communist revolution. For several years O'Keefe lived with a relative in southern California. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1963 to 1965, according to a certification of military service that he keeps. In 1972 he earned a master's degree in Latin-American Studies from UCLA. (The university verifies he matriculated there.) He says he worked as a draftsman during and after his time in school, but lost his job in 1975.
O'Keefe's account of the past 24 years is sketchier. He says he wandered East, taking refuge in churches and eating donated meals before arriving in South Florida in 1987. Before he found the west Miami-Dade library in 1996, he slept in the street near a Farm Store, "which provided me with milk." The library, with its computers and books, gives succor to O'Keefe, who spends hours surfing the Web and sending and receiving e-mails. Somehow he has developed a highbrow British accent. "He never bothers anybody and in fact I have seen him helping out many confused people on the computer," offers Miguel, a transient who often sleeps in his truck in the library parking lot (and who declines to give his last name).
"I was always impressed with his intelligence," adds Claire Jacobson, a woman who met O'Keefe at Matheson Hammock Park and dedicated herself to helping him. She is one of the small but loyal collection of people who passionately believe O'Keefe is an innocent victim of a heartless politician. Jacobson and the others trace the beginning of O'Keefe's troubles to this past February, when the county initiated "la limpieza de los homeless" (the homeless cleanup). They contend Souto ordered it.
The commissioner doesn't deny he takes a hands-on approach to keeping his district neat and orderly. He claims he has heard disgusting stories about homeless men bathing in library bathrooms, sometimes in front of children. But he says he didn't issue any specific anti-homeless or anti-O'Keefe mandate. "They can blame the pope, President Clinton, or humanity in general," Souto retorts. "But when the neighbors complain, you bet I'm going to call the [Miami-Dade County] Homeless Trust. The whole area is very well patrolled by the police and the Homeless Trust, and that's what we pay tax for."
Enrique Strachn worked as a security guard at the library for two and a half years until this past May, when he was transferred. He relates that Souto came by in early February and noticed Miguel (the truck-dweller) in the parking lot, checking his vehicle's radiator fluid. "The commissioner came up to me and said, 'These homeless people are running off the public,'" Strachn recalls. "'If the people are scared, they won't come back, and the library will have to close.' Then [Souto] said, 'Don't say anything about this,' and he left. After about fifteen minutes, he sent over a police car."