Lee, Collier, homeless coalitions conduct surveys, expect high numbers due to COVID-19 fallout

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

When Susie Rodriquez became homeless in Immokalee 12 years ago, she vowed to learn how to survive on her own.

She’s done that. And she’s accepted that life is tough.

“I don’t mind it,” Rodriquez, 57, said. “It doesn’t bother me. I am not alone. There are a lot of us.”

Nonprofit homeless coalitions in Lee and Collier counties this week are conducting “point in time” homeless counts where volunteers go out into the community and survey the homeless. The volunteers gather data to submit to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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The information collected about why individuals are homeless includes life factors such as family circumstances, veteran status, education, health and substance abuse history.

The data helps local coalitions decide where to target limited social service support and enables them to apply for grants to sustain services.

There’s more hardship today compared to last March when the first cases of COVID-19 infection hit Southwest Florida, coalition leaders said. The pandemic has forced many into unsteady living situations when jobs dried up.  

“There’s been a lot of job losses, a lot who had jobs and lost them this past year,” Michael Overway, executive director of the Collier County Hunger and Homeless Coalition, said Thursday. “We have a lot of semi-housed people. People are desperate for food.”

Included in the annual surveys are individuals at risk of homelessness who stay with friends, share a motel room or sleep on porches to put a roof over themselves at night.

Poverty in the farmworker community in eastern Collier County is a way of life. So is homelessness among a largely immigrant population, many of whom pick vegetables in the fields in the winter months and move north in summer.

And many double up in trailers or share apartments to make ends meet as affordable housing in Immokalee is in short supply, social service officials say.

On Thursday, coalition staff and volunteers spent the day at Guadalupe Social Services on South Ninth Street in Immokalee.

The Collier count will continue off Bayshore Drive in East Naples Friday.

Job loss fuels homeless numbers

Volunteers with the Lee County Homeless Coalition fanned out to a dozen or more areas on Wednesday where the homeless have camps or where they gather for their survey.

The results usually take several months to tabulate, according to the coalitions.

Adina Bridges, a director with Centerstone of Florida, a behavioral health center in Fort Myers, was one of the volunteers.

She and other volunteers went to a wooded area in North Fort Myers where many have established camps.

“A lot of them we work with on a regular basis,” she said, referring to clients with mental health and medications’ needs. “We also let them know about the new Homeless Resource Center that’s opened up. We brought them the flyer.”

A former shelter at the Salvation Army, located at 2450 Edison Ave. in Fort Myers, was dedicated Tuesday as a respite center for the homeless with basic daytime services and relief from being on the streets.

Samantha Griffen, a case worker with Centerstone, a behavior health service gathers data from Joseph Mirra, 35, at Lions Park in Fort Myers on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. Mirra has been homeless for several years. Griffen was gathering the data for a point in time homeless count in Lee County.

Many homeless who found shelter in Centennial Park in Fort Myers were forced to move out last year as the area was closed off for construction. 

Janet Bartos, executive director of the Lee homeless coalition, said there are many who are in dire trouble due to the pandemic.

Samantha Griffin, a case worker with Centerstone, a behavior health service gathers data from from man who declined to be identified at Lions Park in Fort Myers on Wednesday, January 27, 2021.The man is homeless. Griffen was gathering the data for a point in time homeless count in Lee County.

“Many people have lost jobs due to the pandemic and are unable to pay their rent,” Bartos said.  “We are also concerned that when the eviction moratorium ends, we will see an even greater increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness.”

Results from the 2020 point-in-time count in Lee found 444 homeless individuals, of which 21% were considered chronically homeless, according to the Lee coalition. Another 40% reported having a disabling condition and veterans accounted for about 4%.

There were 34 families with 76 children among the survey findings in Lee.

The Lee County homeless management information system estimates 2,714 people during the year experience homelessness in the county.

Vicky Bond,58, sits with her belongings at Lions Park in Fort Myers on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. She has been homeless since 2017. She was counted as someone who is classified as homeless for a point in time homeless count in Lee County.

Results from the 2020 count in Collier determined 603 people were homeless, with the total breaking down to 252 in emergency shelters and 183 in transitional housing that is not meant for human habitation, according to the coalition.

Lastly, 168 were unsheltered and living on the streets in Collier.

Vann Ellison, executive director of St. Matthew’s House, a structured homeless and substance abuse recovery program in Collier, said there has been huge fall out of job losses tied to the pandemic.

“We are seeing more people on the streets than ever before,” he said.

While St. Matthew’s House shelters are full, people are afraid of going to shelters out of fear they will be exposed to COVID-19, even though shelters are staying on top of safety protocols, he said.

The irony is that many homeless people are not getting infected because they are forced into social distancing and they have developed strong immune systems living on the streets, he said.

The expectation is that homeless count numbers will go up through the point in time counts, which are far from scientific and usually result in lower numbers than what’s really out there, he said.

“It is a flawed system but it is the best system we’ve got,” Ellison said. “We always believe the numbers are under-counted.”

Surviving on the streets

At the Guadalupe center in Immokalee on Thursday, pallets piled waist-high with boxes of ready-made meals donated by Meals of Hope and other agencies were emptied quickly as volunteers with the homeless coalition gave supplies out to the needy.

Survival kits the coalition put together of toiletries, snacks and other supplies went just as quickly.

The COVID-19 pandemic lead to the Guadalupe ministry closing its free lunch, shower room and clothing pantry that the homeless relied on.

Instead of eating at tables inside the center, the meal is provided at a counter to take outside to eat.

When the lunch program at Guadalupe closed, Rodriquez said she lost her job there as the main dishwasher in the kitchen.

She lives in a camp nearby with her boyfriend, who comes and goes, yet said she is taking care of herself. She doesn’t know when Guadalupe will reopen its kitchen and she can go back to work.

“They shut the showers so a lot of us don’t have a place to go,” she said. “That is very sad.”

Rodriquez has been tested several times for COVID-19 and said she’s always been negative.

“I’m not afraid of it,” she said. “I’m diabetic. I take shots of insulin every day. I’m used to that. The poking doesn’t bother me.”

Rose Borders, 53, has been living in a homeless camp in Immokalee for years.

“It’s been a terrible year,” she said. “My sister passed. She died from full-blown COVID.”

Borders’ sister lived in a nursing home in Georgia and she went by bus to see her but couldn’t because of visitor prohibitions due to COVID-19. She learned her sister died a few days ago.

Her daily routine has changed slightly because of the pandemic since she can’t shower at Guadalupe but she still goes there each day to meet her friend, Theresa Green 44, who lives in Farm Workers Village.

They hang out and go to the flea market to charge their cell phones.

Green, who works in a packinghouse in the afternoon, said the pandemic has been bad in Immokalee.

“People don’t care,” she said, about wearing masks. “I don’t like it. I had to take the test because of contact with each other.”

When she got her results, it was negative.

 “Thank God,” she said.