Debate: Bonita St. Matt's House
Should it come to Bonita?
BONITA SPRINGS — Despite continuing debate, more than 280 residents remained patient and cordial Wednesday as they discussed whether St. Matthew’s House should build a location in Bonita Springs.
With the influx of e-mails and comments to Bonita Springs council members from supportive and concerned residents alike, the center decided to hold an open forum at First Presbyterian Church of Bonita Springs to address concerns.
“We’re in the business of helping people reconstruct their lives and become productive citizens in our society,” said Rick Fomo, St. Matthew’s House board president. “We help people who have some serious challenges in their lives … they don’t have anyone else to turn to. We become the family of last resort for a lot of people in our community.”
Vann Ellison, St. Matthew’s House president and chief executive officer, said the statistics don’t lie — south Lee County residents need help.
“I spoke with Lee County homeless coordinator, and right now in Lee County there are 960 students as of this morning that have been enrolled in a homeless program,” Ellison said. “Every public school in Lee County has homeless children in it …333 students in Estero and Bonita Springs.”
He added there are currently 350 homeless veterans in Southwest Florida and more than 100 in Lee County. Over the last three years, he said, St. Matthew’s House has helped 466 homeless veterans, all from Southwest Florida.
“Our program, our discipline and our structure are intended to change people’s lives,” Ellison said.
Former Bonita Springs Councilman Pat McCourt stepped forward to present the disadvantages of having St. Matthew’s House move into the neighborhood.
“Since I’ve already been singled-out as the only person in Bonita Springs that seems to be opposed to this, I’ll do my best,” he joked to laughter from the crowd.
McCourt began his argument against the facility by speaking about America’s charitable culture before raising the issue of why St. Matthew’s House is leaving Collier County. He told the audience the U.S. spends $150 billion a year on the war on poverty, about $60 billion of which is spent supporting the infrastructure necessary to care for these individuals.
“A very large and very profitable industry,” he called it.
Ellison told those in attendance that St. Matthew’s House will not be leaving Collier County, but will build a new, 60-bed transitional facility on 8.8 acres of land at the old Causeway Lumber site on Old 41 Road.
Attendees were allowed to ask questions, submitted on an index card for panelists to respond. The first question was about safety of the residents who live near the facility.
Ellison responded with saying safety is paramount and to ensure that, despite the fact that there are single women and children who live at the East Naples center and in the 22 years it's been a part of the community there hasn’t been one case of assault, the new facility in Bonita Springs will have a 10-foot wall surrounding it. Also, he said, there will be security cameras and each person is drug-tested, given a Breathalyzer before entering and has a background check performed before becoming a resident. A 10 p.m. curfew is also imposed.
McCourt acknowledged the safety St. Matthew’s House ensures, however, he raised the issue of where these individuals will go if they are not accepted into the shelter because they are either drunk or at the center at the wrong time.
“They’re going to be roaming the streets of Bonita,” he said.
While the debate continued for almost three hours, some residents came out of the discussion disappointed with McCourt’s arguments and with their minds changed.
“I came down here with an open mind, very impressed honestly,” Ed Fitzgerald, Bonita Springs fire commissioner, said. “ I’m sort of leaning very strongly now to favor St. Matthew’s House in Bonita Springs. (I’m) a little disappointed in Mr. McCourt. He comes with a history of antagonism, seems not to support anything, so I don’t think he was much value on the board.”
Others, such as Norman Grajek, a Spanish Wells resident, maintained his stance despite the discussion.
“I think the facility of St. Matthew’s House, is they’re trying to do good for the community, however, I think the location they picked is a very poor location to pick and are taking away from the community and not adding to it,” Grajek said after the debate, adding the city could turn those eight acres into a business district to help generate jobs instead.