Alarming stats: Homeless children on the rise in Lee County

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— There’s been a slight uptick in the number of homeless indivduals in Lee County compared to last year but the concern is more children have no place to call home.

The Lee County Homeless Coalition released its annual “point in time” homeless survey which found 1,054 individuals are homeless compared to last year’s finding of 1,041 people are homeless.

What’s alarming is that 145 children are homeless, a 26-percent increase compared to 115 homeless children last year, said Janet Bartos, executive director of the coalition, a group of faith-based and community organization that serve the needy.

The survey was conducted the evening of Jan. 25 at shelters and service centers, and is considered a sampling of the homeless problem, she said.

The figure may be closer to 3,400 homeless individuals, based on Lee County’s homeless management information system, she said.

The annual survey is required by the federal government to receive grant funding. Last year, Lee County was awarded $2.1 million for social service programs targeting the homeless, from mental health care to housing assistance.

“One of the things we have noticed is that people are remaining homeless longer and the unemployment rate among the homeless has risen and they are staying unemployed longer,” she said.

On a bright side, the number of homeless veterans has gone down from last year’s 113 to 88 this year.

“We have improved our services and let’s just hope the federal government doesn’t cut funding,” she said, referring to housing assistance for veterans. “They are looking at it.”

St. Matthew’s House, a homeless shelter organization in Collier County, has plans to build a homeless shelter in Bonita Springs, at the former site of Causeway Lumber at 28280 Old U.S. 41. St. Matthew’s officials. St. Matthew’s officials estimate 30 percent or more people who are served at its East Naples shelter come from south Lee.

Al Brislain, executive director of the Harry Chapin Food Bank, which distributes food to 170 social service agencies for the needy throughout Southwest Florida, said the numbers, especially among children, reflect what’s happening with the foreclosures. More people are living in cars, families are “doubling up” in apartments and others try to stay hidden.

The coalition’s survey found 83 families are homeless this year compared to 91 families last year.

The Lee County School District, which tracks school children over nine months during the school year, says there are 904 homeless children this year. Last year there were 710 homeless children, Bartos said.

“It breaks your heart,” Brislain, of Harry Chapin, said of the increase in homeless children. Lee County’s unemployment rate was 12.5 percent in December, 2010, and an updated figure should be available this month, according to a report by the Regional Economic Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University. The jobless rate in Lee is down from 13.4 percent in November 2010.

Meg Geltner, general manager of the Salvation Army in Lee, which has 220 shelter beds, said the increase in homelessless, especially among children, is no surprise.

“We’ve lost 40,000 jobs, that’s been documented by the Lee County Economic Development,” she said, adding that most of those were in low-paying retail work. A lot of those workers have limited skills for regaining employment, she said.

There also have been cuts in service resources and case managers in the Lee school district, she said.

“That doesn’t help and we see more children (out) in the streets,” Geltner said.

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