The number of homeless families with children in Collier and Lee counties is up, and as many seek refuge in homeless shelters, the frigid weather is impeding self-sufficiency in already difficult times for those who lost their homes due to the economy or unexpected circumstances.
“I did a Homeless Challenge in November, where we stayed outside for 26 hours. It only got down to 59 degrees, but when you have to sleep on the cement, I couldn’t believe what they go through,” said Janet Bartow, the executive director of the Lee County Homeless Education and Advocacy. “You hear sirens all night, and the dampness hits your sinuses. Do you realize people have to sleep outside in this cold weather each night?”
Pointing to her organization’s latest homeless population survey, Bartow said there was a 12 percent increase in 2009 in the homeless population in Lee County.
“Among those, there were 91 families with children,” she said. “This represented a 21 percent increase from the annualized client count with various agencies, and we have an 11 percent increase in the number of homeless veterans here.”
In Collier County, the Salvation Army and St. Matthew’s House have experienced an increase of families in need this year.
“There’s a lot of people coming in right now for assistance and warm blankets,” said Sandra Pierre, who works in the Salvation Army’s Family Store in East Naples. Pierre noted most clients go to the Salvation Army’s main office at 3180 Estey Avenue, for assistance with receiving clothing and blankets to stay warm.
“This year’s Christmas drive had 1,500 applications, and that has doubled from last year,” she said. “This year, it probably doubled because of the economy, and people losing their jobs,” she said.
At St. Matthew’s House, the rapid growth of those seeking refuge led to expanding room on cafeteria floors for sleeping bags and a warm place to rest. However, the next morning, residents are required to leave and seek work during daylight hours.
“Whenever the temperature drops below 55 degrees, we open up a shelter in our dining room,” said Michael Vallee, director of ministries and programs for the shelter. “Our capacity in that room is 40 people, and last night, we had 14 people. We’ve gotten more and more people as the temperatures dropped.
“Our largest rise is in families with children, and it is strictly for financial reasons they come to us now, where it used to be for other reasons,” he said. “We visit shelters all over Florida, including the city of Miami-Dade. Funding there comes from a tax on restaurants to raise money, and here we rely only on private donations. We’d love to help more families and children like that in Collier, and we keep pressing the county for more ways to help them.”
In January, the Collier County Hunger and Homeless Coalition will conduct a one-day survey of homeless families in Collier County. Researchers will be presenting questions to families who are homeless in hopes of gathering data to aid in the planning and assistance for local agencies to assist the growing numbers of homeless people.
“The community has been very generous, but we’re still looking for more donations of sleeping bags and blankets,” said Vallee.
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If You Go to donate or volunteer:
Salvation Army Family Thrift Store
2255 Davis Blvd., Naples
Phone: (239) 775-9447
St. Matthew’s House
2001 Airport Road, Naples
Phone: (239) 774-0500