No home for the holidays
Led by Councilmember Jennifer Nelson, the new Cape Coral City Council has opened a discussion on homelessness in our community.
Taking off her council member cap at a workshop session last week, Ms. Nelson stepped down from the dais to educate her fellow board members on a range of ways the city can address the growing challenge:
— To explore the issue — A task force comprised of involved community leaders. The countywide task force, fostered by Councilmember Nelson and made up of those knowledgeable about the issue, is already at work.
— To address the issue — The formation of a Homeless Outreach, or HOT, Team, where the police would serve as a conduit and ally to those they encounter. The Cape Coral Police Department, which, along with the city, is a government member of the Lee County Homeless Coalition, already has buy-in for this type of approach.
— To help resolve the issue — The establishment of a facility, potentially in the Cape, to fill a gap in local resources and complement what Lee County already has available. As proposed, the city would not fund or staff any such facility but would provide use of a “surplus” property to an existing organization that assists those who are homeless. The city most recently did this with and for the Cape Coral Animal Shelter.
With our economy still lagging and with a cold snap upon us, it was a timely conversation on a challenge that is more recent to the Cape than other areas throughout Lee County where neither the discussion, nor the challenge, of issues related to homelessness are new.
Councilmember Nelson summed up a quite complex issue succinctly.
“We cannot arrest away this problem. We need to address the root of this problem and not the symptom,” she said.
While the face of homelessness that most of us see is the person at the intersection or shopping center with the cardboard sign asking for help, the heart, the soul, the person behind the sign is much more complex. So are the challenges with which they deal for they are not only economic but often rooted in issues of mental health, substance abuse, and more which a night or two in jail cannot be expected to resolve.
The Lee County Homeless Coalition estimates that there are more than 2,700 individuals who are homeless at any given time throughout Lee County.
According to its last survey, about 21 percent of those living on Lee County streets are chronically homeless — an individual adult “with a disabling condition who has either continuously been homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”
Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed by the coalition said they have a disabling condition.
Homelessness is not limited to unaccompanied adults. The last survey, at the beginning of the year, found 34 families with 76 children among those without a residence.
Data from the School District of Lee County shows numbers are higher than in the “snapshot” survey. This year the district identified 379 students as homeless, up from 354 for the 2018-19 school year, up from the 335 students identified for 2017-18.
The problem is real. It spans age groups and gender.
And it kills. At least 19 individuals who were homeless have died here in Lee County this year.
The Lee County Homeless Coalition will mark those deaths, remember those individuals, at its 24th annual Candlelight Vigil for the Homeless on Monday, Dec. 21, from 6-7 p.m. at the Lee County Courthouse Steps at 2120 Main St. in Fort Myers.
This event is intended to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness and memorialize those who have died this past year while living on the streets or in shelters in Lee County.
The coalition’s primary goal is a simple one as they strive to “give voice to the voiceless.” It is “Working to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief, and one-time.”
Donations, and involvement by individuals, families, businesses and other organizations, are also welcome for not only are there many who have no home for the holidays, but face homelessness, or housing insecurity, year round.
Those who wish to make a donation, or become otherwise involved, may visit leehomeless.org .
— Breeze editorial