A homeless encampment has grown at Lions Park in Fort Myers. Millions of dollars are available to address the crisis, but what has been done so far? (CREDIT: WINK News)

Homelessness in Lee County: Millions of dollars provided, but is it helping?

For the last four years, Vicky Bond has carried her past and her belongings with her, sleeping on a bamboo mat at Lions Park.

“I got real depressed, lost my job, lost my apartments and just started living homeless,” Bond said.

Alcoholism and unmonitored medications caught up with her, and then, Hurricane Irma hit.

“And that just sort of wrecked everything,” Bond said.

Homelessness is a complicated subject and it seems to be getting worse as more people lose their jobs and struggle to pay their bills.

Bond is one of the dozens who has made camp at Lions Park, just west of US-41 near Lee Memorial Hospital. Lions Park in Fort Myers is now home to dozens of people who fell through the cracks while the county has gotten millions to solve the crisis.

In Fort Myers this week, city leaders turned down a proposal to move people from Lions Park to tents closer to the Salvation Army. Meanwhile, Lee County commissioners proposed building a facility where roughly 270 people on the rapid rehousing waitlist could live temporarily.

Bond came to Fort Myers for a 28-day detox program and made it about six months at a halfway house before things changed.

“We were all very dedicated to our programs and stuff, it was a good program, don’t get me wrong. But one bad apple,” Bond said. “I would never go back to that treatment.”

Bond said they kicked her and several people out. One of her friends ended up dying on the street. Now, she’s lost faith in the system.

“People are constantly out here saying, you know, they’re going to get a check for this, they’re going to get a hotel room,” Bond said. “I don’t even bother with that kind of stuff. You know, what’s that going to change?”

Several non-profits, faith-based organizations and government agencies make up Lee County’s Continuum of Care (CoC), a local homeless assistance planning network funded in part by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The county has received millions in federal dollars. From 2018 to 2019, HUD gave the county more than $2.4 million. From 2019 to 2020, the county got more than $2.3 million.

Millions more come in from the state and from the county’s general funds.

For the fiscal year 2018-2019, the state gave the county $919,725. During that time the county set aside more than $6 million of its own funds.

For fiscal year 2019-2020, the state gave the county $3.1 million while the county used  $6.2 million of its own money.

The money seemed to be working. By 2019, the Lee County Homeless Coalition reports the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given night dropped by more than half over 10 years, from 931 people in 2009 to 372 people in 2019, according to their annual Point-In-Time count.

“The more time you spend down here the more you realize how much more is needed,” said Kristine Salter.

Salter and her volunteers with Centennial Park Helping Hands feed houseless people around town. They do that three times a week because of the need.

“You know they got a success story for a few minutes where they get a place, but then they end up back out on the streets and it’s just a vicious cycle,” Salter said.

Just between December 5, 2019 to December 4, 2020, Lee County reports it serviced 2,040 people whose housing status was “homeless” at the time, and that’s just the number of people that got help.

“The pandemic really exposed a lot of gaps that we had,” said Marc Mora, assistant county manager for Lee County.

Mora said the Continuum of Care is working together to fill those gaps, especially now that they’ve got CARES Act money.

“I think the funding has helped us be a little bit more agile and address these things in a more impactful way,” Mora said.

The county got more than $4 million split between rapid rehousing programs and behavioral health services for the new Housing Outreach treatment (HOT) Team, to help address the issues of people who are already homeless. The HOT teams deployed in October.

Lee County has also launched a campaign to house 100 households in 100 days. The deadline is March 11.

“We’re well on our way to reaching that goal,” Mora said.

Additionally, in January the Salvation Army opened its homeless resource day center that offers laundry, computers, food and other services.

Lee County’s Continuum of Care is supposed to follow the “Housing First” approach, which prioritizes putting people in permanent housing, and then offering other services so they can sustain it.

Mora says they typically encourage people stay at their shelters first.

“It’s very easy just to say, let’s put them in a home. But there’s so much more that goes into making sure someone’s successful,” Mora said.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness said on average, a shelter costs about $8,000 to $16,000 per person per stay. In transitional housing, it’s anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 per person per stay.

It’s been proven that putting people in permanent housing first oftentimes saves money.

People that get into permanent supportive housing very much reduce their emergency and other medical costs, their health improves, their behavioral health improves,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “There are major cost savings around that.”

That’s led local activists like Ken Clairmont to ask if housing is supposed to come first, why not do it more?

“There’s a lot of anger, a lot of mistrust, and a lot of upset between the people providing direct services and the city and county,” Clairmont said.

Lee County said it’s already looking to start housing another 100 households in the next 100 days after the first initiative wraps up. In addition, a new 95-unit permanent supportive housing complex, which was in the works before the pandemic and cost $20 million, is set to finish construction by June in Fort Myers.

Reporter:Sara Girard
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