The Working Homeless Part 1: When a working wage isn’t a living wage

Working by day, homeless by night. It’s a way of life for some people in Fort Myers. WINK News investigative reporter Céline McArthur hits the streets to find why and why more isn’t being done to help them.

It’s 6:30 AM, Officer Ryan Beiner gets ready to make his rounds to check on the homeless.

“I am driving around, looking for individuals early in the morning, who are probably sleeping on people’s property, sleeping at churches, sleeping in front of businesses, sleeping at libraries, sleeping at parks,” says Beiner.

We saw what you might expect—people wrapped up in blankets, without the basics like clothes, food, and medical care.

THE WORKING HOMELESS SERIES
– PART 1: When a working wage isn’t a living wage
PART 2: Fort Myers Mayor reacts to investigation
PART 3: Why is it happening in SWFL and whose job is it to fix the problem?
– PART 4: Questions and answers
– PART 5: Navigating the road to housing
– PART 6: Community steps up while homeless man waits for public assistance in Lee County

What we didn’t expect to see is this—clean clothes lined up on a rack at a homeless camp in the middle of the woods. It begs the question: Who lives here and what’s their story?

“In Fort Myers, you can see a gentleman walking down the street downtown, who’s got saggy, dirty pants, and dirty shirt and obviously looks down on his luck,” says Beiner. “Or you can see a person that’s well tailored, in a nice dress shirt and slacks and has been living out of his car for the last three months. It could be your neighbor, it could be someone you work with, it could be a friend and you would never know.”

“Hi, I’m Ryan, I’m Brent.”

That includes Brent Grayson. We met him at the Edison Mall transfer station. Grayson tells me he doesn’t want people to know he’s living on the streets simply based on how he’s dressed.

“I say it’s your appearance,” says Grayson. “It’s on how you look and that’s when you start getting judged and people start treating you way different.”

Grayson says he’s spent a lot of money applying for apartments, but doesn’t clear the background checks since he has a criminal record.

“I am not going to lie. I’ve been here a little over 12 years, and I’ve been in that place 19 times,” says Grayson.

“I lost my house, I lost everything.”

But he did find a job.

“I work right downtown, Oasis. Oasis Restaurant” says Grayson with a smile.

Samantha Merritt says she couldn’t turn him away.

“His story is… I’m crying when I am interviewing him,” says Merritt. “It was heart wrenching. He said, ‘I’ll do anything, I’ll take any hours,’ and honestly, the workforce is a little rough right now, so it’s beneficial for both parties. There’s a misconception that homeless people don’t want to work, they don’t want to have things, they do.”

Soon after, I meet Mack on a street corner in Downtown Fort Myers.

“You really don’t know what it’s like until you’re out here,” says Mack. “So don’t judge us for what we do or why we’re out here on the streets. Just understand that it can happen to you.”

Mack’s been for seven years. When he’s not perched in his familiar spot, he works at the Luminary Hotel.

“I am a dishwasher, and I also help maintain all the equipment there and I sanitize everything because of COVID-19,” says Mack.

Mack wants a place close to work, but can’t find one he can afford.

“It’s very bad,” says Mack. Just to get a one-bedroom apartment is 800, close to a thousand dollars.”

In the meantime, he’s making do in the kitchen and on the streets.

Celine: “To be homeless and be able to go to work…”

Mack: “That’s the easy part. All you need to do is wake up and go.”

“I see some out here laying around, doing nothing, and then they expect things to happen for them. It’s not going to happen that way. You’ve got to get off your butt and work for it,” says Mack.

The Luminary Hotel declined to talk to us about Mack and if they have other homeless people on staff.

In the meantime, Beiner continues his patrols, helping one homeless person at a time, encouraging them to help themselves.

No agency or organization in the area can tell us exactly how many people are homeless and working. They don’t specifically seek out that information. Additionally, many people who are homeless aren’t in the system and their situations could vary day by day.

With that said, we could find one statistic. Lee County Human and Veterans Services does ask people when they first sign up for services, if they’re working. In 2020, 2,309 people or households registered in the County’s Coordinated Entry System. Of those, 550 or 23.8% report having some employment income.

Keep this conversation going as we continue our investigation. Email me your feedback or story ideas at [email protected] or send a message on the WINK News Facebook page.

Reporter:Céline McArthur
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