Many people daydream about taking up permanent residence in their favorite vacation spot. Few people make it a reality.
Randi Cohen Brown, a former assistant district attorney in Chautauqua County and a former Erie County legislator, has made it happen.
Brown now runs a shelter for the homeless in Key West, Fla. She has been living on the island for about 10 months now, and she said her plans came together after several years of thinking and research.
The cost of rent was the biggest concern, as housing is expensive in Key West. Cohen Brown said most other expenses, like utilities and groceries are about the same as they were in New York. She has learned to cut corners by driving a motor scooter to work most days and shopping with coupons.
It all started with a vacation trip about seven years ago with her husband, Randy Brown.
The couple fell in love with the laid-back feel of the island and its beautiful surroundings. “And the weather,” Cohen Brown said.
As the only city in the continental U.S. that never has had a freeze or frost, the weather is tropical. “No more scraping windshields,” she noted.
“And I can go to work wearing sandals and shorts, and it is acceptable,” she said with a smile.
Her days of prosecuting cases may be over, but the lawyer’s attitude is still there.
“This is going to sound sappy, but I got into law because I wanted to help people, so I knew this was the job for me,” she said.
She practiced family law and worked extensively with local drug courts in Chautauqua County. She said she liked the way drug courts encouraged people to change and set new goals in their lives. “I liked it that the drug court teams were always encouraging people to find a passion and follow their goals.”
With the help of her husband and a lot of research about jobs, rentals and information, the couple turned their last vacation in Key West into a mission. They found an apartment, he found work and they set about closing their affairs in their hometown of Fredonia.
“I think that texting and email have made it so much easier to stay in touch with family,” Cohen Brown said. Family communication is especially important to her because she is expecting her first grandchild in September.
At work, she manages a staff that takes care of about 125 people each night. The average age of the residents is between 45 and 55, and they look for the shelter to give them a safe place to sleep and take a shower.
Cohen Brown helps the staff when shelter residents need medical attention, have legal issues or have other problems like help searching for jobs or getting in touch with families. She said the work is rewarding and different each day.
“But on our days off, we have more time to explore the island and surrounding keys, and it’s just beautiful,” she said. “People are kind and accepting – there was no waiting to fit in to become a local resident.”
Her advice to anyone who wants to move to “paradise”: research carefully, look at options to change your career goals and make sure you get a cellphone with the local area code.
“Employers return phone calls more quickly when your cellphone has their area code,” she said.
Would she recommend the move to others?
“Absolutely,” she said. “Follow your passion.”