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Centennial Park officially fenced off to public, homeless community

Centennial Park was officially fenced off Friday, not only to the public but to the homeless people who call that place home.

So what will happen to those people now that they can’t go there for shelter?

Everyone in that camp knew this was coming at some point, but that likely didn’t make it easier on them.

Lee County deployed 20 people to the park Friday morning to try and move whoever was left into a shelter. Only five of them accepted. No one knows where the rest of them went.

Ralph Wollam, a homeless, once-convicted felon, told a group of social workers just how hard it is to get back on his feet.

“Oh, it’s terrible,” he said, “at 40 years old, looking for a career again.”

Across town, outside and on the steps of the Old Lee County Courthouse, a group of Democrats running for office said they have a solution.

“Everyone’s pushing it off, putting that responsibility off. To the city, to the county, and these people running and going back-and-forth and issues not being addressed,” said Jacquelyn McMiller, who’s running for Fort Myers mayor.

She called for the city to convert unused buildings, a stadium or a firehouse into shelters. Her opponent, sitting Councilman Kevin Anderson, thinks that idea is worth looking into.

As for pushing homelessness off, “this has been an issue for decades. It’s really a shame that, because it’s an election year, people are using the plight of the homeless for their own personal political gain,” Anderson said.

Friday morning proved to be closing time at the park. Fort Myers Police Department officers and Lee County sheriff’s deputies cleared out what and who was left in the park.

“I just hope it’s all for the better, change, nobody’s gonna stop change,” Wollam said.

Change is why this fence is here in the first place. The city plans to renovate Centennial Park over the next several months.

Elliot Walker feeds the homeless every week at churches and in the camps. He said he’s never seen a politician there, not once.

“What? Now, all of the sudden, everyone running for office and they want to get involved,” he said. “For what?”

So as the city was shutting down the last of Centennial Park, he came to a news conference with candidates running for office, not to hear from them but to have them hear from Christina Angle.

“They can’t explain nothing to you about homelessness,” Walker said. “‘Cuz they’ve never been homeless. But she can explain to you because she is homeless.”

Angle didn’t and couldn’t hold back.

“We’re getting chased out of these parks. We can’t sleep. Nowhere. Where can we sleep? A cop even told me, I said, ‘Where can I go?’ He said, ‘Go to the woman’s shelter.’ There is no woman’s shelter here. They’re not here and it’s hard. Y’all don’t understand. I am homeless trying to find my way out here, find a place to eat, sleep, shower, and everyone just looks at us like we’re stupid,” Angle said.

There are a lot of women who are homeless these days because of the pandemic. After Angle spoke, we asked Marc Mora, assistant Lee County manager, if there is a safe place for women on the streets to go, or anyone with medical issues, for example.

His answer was that there are many different shelters with different rules and restrictions. But, he said, the county is prepared to help anyone find a shelter with space.

If you know anyone who needs that kind of help, you can call Lee County Human Services at 239-533-7930.

Reporter:Sydney Persing
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