The Working Homeless Part 7: Lee commissioners don’t answer questions on homeless issues, county restricts access after WINK investigation

Published: January 18, 2022 6:23 PM EST
Updated: January 25, 2022 10:52 AM EST

“Talk a little bit about transparency and accountability. That’s what people are asking for and they want to see that and they’re wondering why they can’t.” – WINK News Investigative Reporter Céline McArthur to Lee County Commissioners

WINK News takes our special report “The Working Homeless” to Lee County Commissioners to find out exactly what’s being done to help those in need. After weeks of ignoring or turning down our requests for information and interviews, Investigative Reporter Céline McArthur approached commissioners all at once asking that they respond to our investigation and about the process of getting the homeless off the streets.

County Commissioners hold meetings here twice a month on Tuesday mornings, and since they have not responded to my requests to discuss the working homeless in Lee County, I’m taking our questions to them.

Celine: “The working homeless tell me they feel like they’re in the dark — literally and figuratively — when it comes to the process, and say they can’t trust a process that they can’t see, so they’ve asked me to help verify that process and we still have a lot of unanswered questions we hope you can help with. We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, a homeless crisis, and a workforce crisis, so what challenges do these workers have in helping the working homeless? Also, how can the County demonstrate proof of performance? How can the public see the work is being done?”

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass: “The county manager, the staff works for him, and you can contact the county manager. At this time we have no discussion, we just have public comment, so thank you.”

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

While we wait for a reaction from the county manager, in December, the Executive Director of Human and Veteran Services Roger Mercado gave us permission to follow 57-year-old Brent Grayson’s journey—step by step— because he said our continuing coverage could help our community.

“We appreciate the opportunity because it would be great to see him along that journey to see what the end result is, which hopefully involves no longer being underemployed and housing,” says Mercado.

For weeks after that interview, we couldn’t get any new details from them about Grayson’s case. Instead, I got emails from the Communications Department, delaying our work. They include:

“Would it be possible to follow up with us next week?”

“We will be back with you when we have information to share with you.”

Those delays turned into no’s with responses including:

“We treat cases with confidentiality as do our partnering agencies. At this point, we do not foresee providing detailed or further information about Mr. Grayson specifically.”

“Our outreach worker is declining your interview request.”

Did she really? That’s not what she told Grayson in one of her most recent calls with him.

Outreach Worker: “I did want to discuss with you WINK News. so, I have nothing to do with that. I’m working for you. I can’t talk to them. I am not allowed to share anything about you with them or anything like that. So I hope, a clear line between…”

Brent: “Why? Why is that thought? If I’m giving… but it’s me and I’m giving you permission…”

Outreach Worker: “I understand. I don’t have permission from my employer.”

Brent: “Ooooh.”

In that call, she did tell Grayson he’s now a priority, thanks in part to WINK News.

“You’re going to be, you know, on the priority list for housing, it could take a while. I don’t have an exact date. oh, you are on the radar as far as my supervisor because of wink news, and you advocating for yourself, so I imagine it won’t be too long.”

Grayson says there haven’t been any major developments in the six days following that call.

Florida Gulf Coast University Professor Tom Felke says the lack of transparency in this process is disappointing, but not surprising.

“Unfortunately, there are higher-ups to answer to, and if those higher-ups say this is what the answer is, then that’s what everyone else has to abide by. I think that’s a shame. But I know for a fact, it’s the reality, because I’ve experienced that myself.”

In the meantime, nearly five weeks after Grayson signed up for public assistance through the county’s coordinated entry system, he still works six days a week at The Oasis Restaurant by day, and walks the streets and sleeps in the woods at night.

“This is where I rest my head, you know what I am saying? I’ll take a couple of pieces of cardboard, and I’ll lay them down… I got a blanket hidden over here somewhere, and I’ll go grab my blanket and just go lay down.”

And then it’s back to work, with still no idea when he’ll get off the streets.

We will continue to follow Grayson’s journey on the air, and online.  You can join in on the conversation by emailing me at [email protected] or [email protected].