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LCSO gives update on homelessness in NFM

By CHUCK BALLARO - | Jun 11, 2021

Panhandling at some of the busiest intersections of North Fort Myers has decreased dramatically, according to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

However, that doesn’t mean the issues associated with homelessness have gone away, as there are still many individuals who have not taken advantage of the resources available to them, according the presentation made at the monthly North Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast networking event this week.

According to Captain Tom More, many of those who are homeless have started to make their home in the back end of the Hancock Bridge Square plaza near the canal.

“They were placed there as a result of them sleeping under the breezeways and it was becoming an eyesore. People were dropping off furniture, feeding them, hanging out in front of the chiropractic building and panhandling and taking up residence everywhere,” More said, adding that his intent was not to demonize those who are homeless.

The camp behind the plaza was becoming an environmental hazard, he said. Because they couldn’t maintain the canal, all the runoff and sewage and garbage were running into the canal.

Meanwhile, someone committed suicide there.

“It was becoming more of a problem with the drugs and prostitution, so we decided with the county’s blessing and the property owner, they hired a man to get everyone out of there,” More said.

That person also has been attempting to clean up the plaza, fix the potholes, and make the near-vacant plaza more presentable.

The county has been using its Housing Outreach Treatment Team to help those in need find alternative places to live. Teams conduct street outreach to persons experiencing homelessness, with the goal of connecting individuals and families to housing and services.

HOT Teams conduct assessments, provide referrals for housing and shelter, and connect households with behavioral health and other supportive services.

More said Lucy Ramirez has been the LCSO go-to person and she has been able to provide food and services to those needing them.

Commissioner Brian Hamman has also ridden with More to assess the situation. He said Hamman has been optimistic about the plaza since the new person came on board.

Since being forced out of Hancock Bridge Square, those who are homeless have moved back into the wooded areas. Others have been given vouchers to go to a hotel. Many congregated at a nearby gas station, where they could access bathrooms, Wi-Fi and food.

But More said while many have been offered help, many didn’t want it because of the rules imposed.

“We know who they are, where they’re at and if they come out with their familiar faces. We pretty much know them throughout the area, especially the ones causing issues,” More said.

The county enacted an ordinance that prohibits interaction between motorists and pedestrians in medians (usually panhandling). Many municipalities, including Cape Coral, are expected to pass similar ordinances.

Chamber President John Gardner said as far as the panhandlers, many of them have been “wandering aimlessly,” but the situation has been much better than before.

Previously, motorists expressed concern that panhandlers could try to rob or attack them. Also of concern is that they went from standing on the median to walking between cars and, when the ordinance went into effect, More said they started panhandling at the Target on Pondella and Pine Island roads.

Panhandlers had their own territories, and fights would break out if others tried to enter “their” area. Some would drive their cars to panhandle and go to their homes when finished, since that had become their occupation, More said.