The Working Homeless Part 3: Why is it happening in SWFL and whose job is it to fix the problem?

Published: December 16, 2021 4:43 PM EST
Updated: January 25, 2022 10:54 AM EST

It’s become a story that makes you think — how can you be employed and not be able to put a roof over your head? But the working homeless are out there, working by day and living on the streets by night.

WINK News investigative reporter Céline McArthur has been digging into this hidden workforce to find out why there’s no specific plan or playbook to help them.

There’s the homeless crisis, the housing crisis, and the workforce crisis. Independently, these three issues get a lot of attention, but there’s a group of people who fit into all of these categories at once, and are largely overlooked: the working homeless. That begs the questions: Why is this happening and who’s responsible for fixing the problem? One homeless man named Mack challenged me to get answers. I asked four key stakeholders in the community. Here’s what I learned.

MORE: Click here for continuing coverage in The Working Homeless series

Reverend William Glover fights for affordable housing in Fort Myers, and keeps up with nearly every move city council makes.

“There’s a moral responsibility to make certain that housing is available to people who are contributing to the tax base of communities,” says Glover.

I showed him our investigation. He watched two men, Mack and Grayson, share their stories of how they manage work and life on the streets because they can’t afford their own places. Glover says it’s an eye-opener.

“I think it’s one of the most accurate portrayals of a segment of the homeless whose stories are not told,” says Glover. “ That’s the segment of the homeless who are willing to work, and in spite of their work, they can’t find affordable housing in proximity to their workplace. There’s a systemic injustice at work in terms of why working people who pay taxes cannot afford a place to live.”

Florida Gulf Coast University professor Thomas Felke gets emotional as he watches our video of a rack of clean clothes in a makeshift camp in the woods.

“I’m choking up a little bit because you get to this point of, you know, people figuring out how to survive, right?”

Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless Donald Whitehead calls their stories crushing.

“You’ve just demonstrated in your research that, you know, people are out there working every day,” says Whitehead. “It’s not about people being lazy, it’s about people working as hard as they can in the best job they were able to get based on their education and economic conditions.”

Mayor Kevin Anderson says our investigation reinforces how complex the problem is.

“If you have low skill sets, you’re only going to get so much money. I mean, that’s the way the market works,” says Anderson.

Professor Felke adds it doesn’t help that Southwest Florida doesn’t have a wide range of high-paying jobs.

“We’re primarily a service-driven, retail-driven industry, you don’t have a lot of high wages in those fields,” says Felke.

So, how much of our workforce is homeless?

Celine: “I’m trying to get a sense of how many there might be and nobody collects that data.”

Mayor Anderson: “It’s hard to collect. By nature, they’re transient.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does require communities to conduct “point in time” or PIT counts of the homeless. The next one takes place next month, but Felke admits it has its limitations when it comes to counting the *working homeless.

“There is some information that is pulled out about that, but not to the level of detail that maybe we need, because we’re going to miss those individuals, right? The PIT counts are held, usually during the early morning daytime hours, when these individuals–because they’re working–they’re at work, so they’re getting missed in the count,” says Felke.

Whitehead says no clear count leads to no clear plan to effectively address the issue.

“What it forces the community to do is create a strategy connected to the resources available versus the scope of the problem. And that’s why we continue to see homelessness grow, because we don’t have a solution that’s to the scale of the problem,” says Whitehead.

There’s also no consensus on exactly who is responsible for coming up with that solution.

“People feel that the burden of this problem sort of falls squarely on the shoulders of the local government and the taxpayer. Here’s a harsh reality: It’s not the government’s obligation to feed, clothe or house people. Now, with that being said, that does not mean we can’t be involved and participate in some way in trying to address this problem,” says Anderson.

Felke says, “It’s not going to be a one size fits all solution.” He adds, “Government is going to be in there. We need to have nonprofits in there, because those are the ones doing the boots-on-the-ground work… We need industry, we need workforce. So how to engage that at the table–I think is really important. That’s probably the piece that we’re missing the most right now.”

“It takes a person or group of people, and a problem solver, like yourself, to give people some hope, and get them moving back in the right direction,” says Whitehead. “It has to happen pretty quickly before people kind of give up on society. And you know, they’ve been knocked around so long that, again, they have lost the idea that there is a remedy.”

That includes Mack.

“I’ve been out here for seven years, and I haven’t seen anything change in the homeless population whatsoever. No change,” says Mack.

It isn’t easy to get housing for the working homeless in Lee County. 549 people – or entire families – are currently on a waitlist for permanent housing.

This is just the start of the conversation – and we want you to weigh in. You can reach me at [email protected] or comment on our coverage on the WINK News Facebook page.