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Volunteers help conduct annual survey of Lee County homeless community

A group went out Wednesday morning to count how many people are experiencing homelessness in Lee County.

Forty-five FGCU students volunteered for the annual “Point In Time Count.” The count began at 7 a.m.

Lee County Homeless Coalition’s count in 2020, estimated about 2,700 people are homeless in Lee County, but that was before the U.S. was plunged into a pandemic.

The count is conducted by visiting popular sleeping spots among the homeless or attending different community outreach events being held on the day of the count.

The volunteers were expected to ask people a series of questions, including where they slept overnight. Their responses are sent to the U.D. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This year, Lee County Human and Veteran Services created an app, so the count could be done electronically.

Tom Felke with the FGCU Department of Social Work says this process is important because it gives county leaders an estimate of the homeless population, which helps determine funding for the programs and services available to them.

“We’ve had the highest spike in poverty rate in, I believe, the last 20 to 50 years, so that’s a pretty big indicator of a count like this,” Felke said. “So, again, we can get a better sense of what types of programs or resources and services we need in the community.”

Some fear how high the numbers from the count could be this year. Research has borne out Felke’s statement about the historic poverty spike originating from the pandemic. Lee County saw growing numbers of homeless people set up camp in Centennial Park before being forced to find somewhere else in October.

On a bamboo mat, with everything she owns in some trash bags, Vicky Bond lives day to day in Lions Park in Fort Myers. Not long ago, Bond was an ophthalmology technician and someone struggling with alcohol use. Then, Hurricane Irma hit Southwest Florida.

“It was like a domino effect,” Bond explained. “I lost my job. I became real depressed. I lost my job, and I lost my apartment, and I started living homeless.”

Bond has spent much of the last four years living on the streets and in the parks.

She was included in the point-in-time count.

“Having again that snapshot of what it looks like today, that really gives us a lot of information to plan services going forward,” said Stefanie Edwards, the chief development and operations officer of Community Cooperative. “Not just here in Fort Myers but allover Southwest Florida.”

Getting an accurate count is critical, so is connecting people to services they need.

It’s also important to understand how people become homeless — how people have lost their jobs their homes and maybe even their families because of the pandemic.

Lee County Homeless Coalition told us it’s going to take several weeks to review the surveys conducted Wednesday and finalize the homeless count. Hopefully it will be able to then get the federal funding necessary to help what figures to be a new face to homelessness in the area.

Last year, the Lee County Homeless Coalition counted 450 homeless people in one day. They expect that number to be much during for this year’s count.

“We have to get some sort of demographics about how many people are in the community that are homeless, so we can see what else needs to be implemented in the community,” FGCU student Shanique Taylor said.

Until then, Bond dreams of better days when she doesn’t call a spot under a tree home.

“I have to be careful about how I go about getting it,” Bond said.

Shelton Weeks, professor and chair of FGCU’s Department of Economics and Finance, says coronavirus relief packages have helped families who have fallen into poverty, but he says more money in people’s hands doesn’t necessarily promote economic recovery. Weeks says there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to fully turn our economy around.

“The relief packages, you have to realize, can really only help us soften the blow of the situation we’re in right now,” Weeks said. “When we think about economic recovery, what we have to see there is economic growth, job creation, that’s what’s ultimately going to pull us out of this situation.”

Reporter:Andryanna Sheppard
Writer:Joey Pellegrino
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