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Advocates urge Fort Myers to address homeless population with a housing first approach

The homeless crisis in Fort Myers isn’t over, and it’s not cut and dry.

Community members went to the Fort Myers City Council meeting Monday advocating for more help after the homeless got kicked out of Centennial Park earlier in October. They say many of them can’t go to certain shelters.

Advocates of those experiencing homelessness in Fort Myers want the city to adopt a housing first approach. That means get people rapid housing first, and help those struggling with addiction and medical issues after they are housed. They say it’s a contrast to the shelter option that was offered to those who once lived at the park before it closed.

Just under two weeks ago veteran Frank Shaffer was living under the pavilion in Centennial Park. Thanks to the Veterans Affairs, he has shelter at a hotel in south Fort Myers, and he’s loved every moment of it.

“Having that bathroom at your disposal with a shower, or you can take a shower anytime you want, I can’t describe that feeling,” Shaffer said. “It’s just, you can’t put that into words.”

But it’s not enough for Shaffer that he has a roof over his head. He and other advocates went to city hall to ask council to make sure everyone gets the help they need.

“If they can come up with a program that will help me and fellow veterans, they can certainly come up with new programs to help the other homeless people that want off the streets,” Shaffer said.

“We need to address the needs of the people, all people,” said Willie Joe Shotmiller, who is homeless and is a human needs advocate.

Advocates who went to the council meeting believe the housing first approach is a solution.

“Housing first model essentially says that it’s a lot easier for someone to get well whether they are struggling with self-medication or mental wellness or physical maladies,” said Kat Duesterhaus, a housing first advocate. “It says that all of those things are so much easier to address once they’re in a housing situation.”

Advocates say that’s different from the shelter approach, where people must follow curfews, drug and alcohol restrictions and other rules to stay.

Councilman Kevin Anderson spoke to us after the meeting, since Centennial Park is in his ward. He told us the city is continuing to work on programs to address homelessness in Fort Myers. He said he is not opposed to a housing first approach.

“Why do you put so many rules in there that the majority of us won’t deal with those rules?” Shaffer said. “I’m 65 years old. I’m not going to be treated like I’m 12.”

Reporter:Breana Ross
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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