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Fences set to go up around Centennial Park prior to construction

Centennial Park was set to close Monday for renovations. Now, fences are going up and will leave homeless people displaced.

While the city knows people live there, they say it’s unfair to the taxpayers.

The fence only goes so far, which means the homeless people who live there may still be able to use the pavilion for shelter.

The City of Fort Myers never meant for the pavilion in Centennial Park to become a haven for the homeless, but that’s what it has become, especially after the pandemic began.

“Yes, we have homeless women with babies here now. Yes, that started to happen because of the COVID virus,” said Jasmine Miller, who lives in the park.

“They need to give an alternative before they have people leave this,” said Willie Joe, another homeless resident at the park.

It is unclear exactly when they’ll need to leave at this point, but the city says the homeless people who call Centennial Park home will have to leave so that renovation can begin.

“You have got to understand that this is a public amenity for the entire city, it was never meant to be a homeless shelter camp,” said Kevin Anderson, Fort Myers city councilman and candidate for mayor.

Anderson says he feels for the people who live there, but where will they go when they finish fencing the park in? “That’s the million-dollar question. You know most of the shelters in town are full.”

But, he says, there are still plenty of resources and people who are willing to help. County leaders agree, telling WINK News they offered 25 people space in a shelter, yet only two accepted.

If you ask the homeless folks in the park about those abundant resources that Anderson discussed, they’ll paint a very different picture. “People need a place to go, it’s a human need. They need food, you need shelter,” Willie Joe said. “Let’s stop this talking about it and let’s do it.”

A week ago, about 40 people called Centennial Park home. Now, that number has dwindled to 20 since rumors of the park closing began to circulate.

Current Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson said in a statement:

“Homelessness is one of the challenging issues of our day. Our city manager is working with the County Manager and Coalition for the Homeless. There are others involved, faith-based churches who have programs to help. It is quite complicated for sure. There is a movement afoot to assist the homeless in this situation. We all want it to happen sooner than later.”

Salvation Army works with county, city on possible solution

Lee County and The Salvation Army said there are shelters available for people who want help, but people at the pavilion told us the shelters do not fit everyone’s needs. Some don’t want to follow the shelter rules.

People continued to use the pavilion at Centennial Park as a place to keep shelter Tuesday. Police monitored the area. Although the area is not completely fenced in, some worry they could be kicked out at any moment.

Richard Villamanan said he has tried to get help at the nearby shelter since learning the pavilion won’t be a long-term option.

“They don’t have the ability to give the health care that I need,” Villamanan said.

So he’s back outside with everyone else who calls Centennial Park home, bracing for the moment they will be forced to move.

The Salvation Army says it’s working with the city and the county to get as many people as it can into its family shelter and emergency transitional shelter.

“We have actually received 10 names from them specifically to attempt to reach out and help them get into one of our shelters,” said Eric Anderson, communications development with The Salvation Army. “We tend to have availability often. Again, for those who are willing to receive the help and also meet the criteria.”

But activists at the park say beds at the shelters fill up, and not everyone fits the criteria to receive help.

“The reason that they don’t like it is because it does require some sort of substance-abuse tracking to make sure that they don’t have a substance-abuse problem,” said Katrin Duesterhaus, a community activist. Also, they can’t come and go as they please.”

So that puts them right back under places such as the pavilion in Fort Myers, with their nerves on edge and their days numbered.

Villaman is hoping help comes soon.

“At least start doing something to care for this population, which is at risk and has no services on their own,” Villaman said.

Lee County Board of County Commissioners discussed the next steps for helping the homeless during its Tuesday meeting. The assistant county manager says he thinks a rapid rehousing program where people can get permanent housing and other services first might be the solution for people who can’t get into the shelter or don’t want to abide by the rules.

For now, people are staying under the Centennial Park pavilion for as long as they can.

Reporter:Sydney Persing
Breana Ross
Writer:Drew Hill
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