The second wave: Housing insecurity shakes our community
Hurricane Ian has brought the specter — and reality — of homelessness to too many of us here in Lee County.
According to still-preliminary estimates provided by Lee County, Ian destroyed 5,076 homes, caused major damage to 13,532, and minor damage to 14,418. Add in the 17,287 additional residences that were impacted in some way and the tally stands at 50,313.
Rentals are lacking or prohibitively expensive.
This means many are sleeping in cars parked in driveways or hastily obtained RVs and campers as they await insurance money or FEMA aid. This means the forced sharing of space with family or friends or trying to find a house share.
But, hopefully for most, it is temporary.
For others, the storm exacerbated the issue of affordable housing and the lack thereof.
For make no mistake, Lee County was in the midst of a housing crisis well before Hurricane Ian.
Driven by inflation and spiraling housing costs, many Lee Countians were already struggling to pay rent, much less buy a home.
Homelessness also is not a new issue. According to the Lee County Homeless Coalition, we, as a community, have long grappled with its challenges and its impacts.
In an early September release –that’s pre-Ian — the coalition estimated that there are more than 3,400 individuals who are homeless here at any given time.
According to the coalition’s latest survey, taken in January, about 8 percent of those living on Lee County streets are chronically homeless — defined as 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.”
The majority were male and white but the demographic ranges across gender, age and race.
Nor is homelessness limited to unaccompanied adults. The survey found 49 families, with 86 children among them, without a place to live.
Data from the School District of Lee County shows numbers significantly higher than that “snapshot.” This year the district has identified 3,014 students as meeting the criteria for the Federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act which states that children and youths who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” are considered homeless.
This number is not the result of Hurricane Ian alone, the storm has simply given homelessness and housing insecurity a new face.
The problem of existant homelessness is real.
It spans age groups and gender.
It affects individuals and families with kids.
And sometimes it kills.
At least 16 individuals who were homeless died here in Lee County this year alone.
So two things — one for the chronic issue; one for the new and hopefully transient.
One, the Lee County Homeless Coalition will again hold a vigil to remember those who have passed.
The 26th annual Candlelight Vigil for the Homeless will be held Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 6 p.m. at the Lee County Courthouse Steps at 2120 Main St. in Fort Myers.
This event is intended to “educate and inspire the public to support the community’s need for more affordable housing, shelters, and accessible health care.”
Education and support are both sorely needed.
Two, for those in the maelstrom of the storm-caused housing crisis, Lee County is working to help you. The county has launched a housing website, Leegov.com/storm, to better connect storm-impacted residents with resources.
Leegov.com/storm features “a one-stop location for housing resources,” officials said, adding users should click on the house icon, or look for “Housing” in the left rail.
The site encourages those who are homeless or in damaged homes due to Hurricane Ian to apply to FEMA for assistance at DisasterAssistance.gov; by calling 800-621-3362; or by visiting a local Disaster Recovery Center, the locations of which may be found at leegov.com/hurricane/storm/available-resources.
The deadline was recently extended to Jan. 12, 2023.
Leegov.com/storm also provides information on available county resources and aid programs, including home repair assistance, insurance deductible assistance, utility assistance and the coordinated entry program for people at risk of homelessness or who are homeless as well as links to other offices and agencies.
Want to help make a difference?
There are numerous charitable efforts under way to help those whose lives were upended by Hurricane Ian.
Donations can make an immediate impact.
And long term?
The Lee County Homeless Coalition also welcomes donations, and involvement by individuals, families, businesses and other organizations.
For more information, visit leehomeless.org.