Homeless counts in Southwest Florida: Mixed findings but lack of affordable housing is grim
New data on homelessness shows a decline in Collier County and a jump in Lee County but experts in both communities caution the overall outlook is troubling due to dramatic rent increases hitting the most vulnerable.
“Point in time” homeless counts are done annually over one or two days in late January to get a snapshot of the homeless numbers.
In Lee County, the results show 560 people were experiencing homelessness, a 42% jump from the 394 homeless recorded last year, according to the results.
The count in Collier found 462 homeless, a 23% drop from 568 individuals the same time last year.
Southwest Florida has had an affordable housing crisis for years and it has worsened as the real estate market has exploded; more people have been moving to Florida for a variety of reasons including to get away from more restrictive COVID-19 rules in other states, the weather, and an increase in remote employment opportunities.
Despite the January decline in the homeless population in Collier, outreach workers for the Collier County Hunger and Homeless Coalition have faced a huge spike in caseloads for the first three months of this year, said Michael Overway, executive director of the coalition.
They worked to find housing for 337 homeless people from January through March this year, compared to 600 individuals for all of last year, he said.
Therese Everly, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition, said part of the gap between the numbers in Lee has to do with shortcomings in last year’s count.
Because of public safety concerns due to COVID-19, last year’s count was abbreviated so the number would likely have been higher.
What is promising from this year’s finding is that the number of chronically homeless decreased to 47, down from 57 last year, she said.
“The chronically homeless often have more challenges to overcome to be housed, this trend is something to celebrate,” Everly said. “It takes significant time, effort and building trusted relationships between a client and a case manager to work towards permanent housing solutions.”
The annual count findings across Florida communities are reported to state and federal agencies. The data helps homeless coalitions decide where to target government funding for rehousing and grants which are often designed for homeless prevention.
Volunteers interview homeless individuals at shelters, soup kitchens, day labor hiring sites and at homeless camps. They ask about family circumstances, veteran status, education, health and substance abuse history
The counts have flaws, including that some homeless individuals purposely stay away from count sites to avoid being interviewed by the volunteers. In addition, poor weather can keep some away from sites even though daily living supplies are offered.
Statewide data for this year from the Florida Council on Homelessness typically is not available until late June.
In 2021, the state said there were 21,487 homeless individuals across Florida, a 23% drop from 27,487 homeless in 2020. The number has been dropping annually for the past 10 years, according to the council.
What’s happening in Collier
Of the 462 who were homeless in late January in Collier, 157 were on the streets. Another 180 were in emergency shelters and 125 were in transitional housing, the data shows.
Collier is seeing an uptick in newly homeless, as opposed to individuals who are chronically homeless, and there are more homeless seniors, Overway said.
“For the first quarter this year, there were 65 homeless seniors, just seniors 60 and older,” Overway said.
There were 22 homeless veterans this year, down from 34 last year.
Overway credits the nonprofit Wounded Warriors of Collier County for the decline because of its three houses for homeless veterans. One residence is used as transitional housing until veterans can get back on their feet and the other two are for older veterans for longer term.
The newly homeless tend to be in their 20s, with many of them being single women with children, he said.
“We try to rehouse people as fast as we can,” Overway said, but in some cases it has to be in Charlotte County where there is more supply of affordable rentals compared to the rapid evaporation of what’s available in Collier or Lee.
But advocates say the black cloud over Collier is the exorbitant rent hikes that is simply pricing people out of the community and the lack of immediate and long-term solutions to address it.
A two-bedroom, two-bath apartment is typically $4,000 and that is just impossible for working people.
The coalition has good relationships with some landlords but others are selling their rental properties for top dollar in today’s real estate market. He fears the situation will only worsen and more people who have never been homeless will be on the street.
“I don’t think we have seen bad yet,” Overway said.
Steve Brooder, executive director of St. Matthew’s House, the homeless shelter, said the shelter has a wait list of 60 to 100 names.
“The striking thing is first-time homeless,” he said, adding that it is now 25% of people in the shelter. “That is a troubling number.”
Rent, food and fuel are all climbing and that’s not sustainable with 64% of families in the U.S. living paycheck to paycheck, he said. That’s based on findings released in March by LendingClub Corp.
“One event can push someone into homelessness,” Brooder said. “Inflation seems to be unbridled.”
What’s the situation in Lee
One finding this year in Lee that is especially disturbing is the uptick in families on the streets, Everly said.
There were 49 families with 86 children who were homeless in January compared to 30 families last year with 65 children, the data shows.
“The growing number of families experiencing homelessness is concerning, there is a nexus between a robust economy and the cost of living,” Everly said. “The dramatic rise in the housing rental market I believe has contributed to this trend.”
Because the Lee coalition does not work directly with landlords on rapid rehousing, what she hears is anecdotal about the rent spikes but she points to data from the website, Zumper.
The website says the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,633 in Lee, a 47% increase from last year of $1,108. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is now $2,200, a 44% hike from $1,523. That is a $677 monthly increase for the two-bedroom unit.
“This is not just a Lee County trend; we are seeing the same trends regionally as well as statewide,” she said.
When it comes to veterans, this year’s count found 24 who were homeless, down from 33 last year, the data shows.
Officials with Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and the Lee County Housing Authority who handle rapid rehousing for the homeless and related supportive services could not be reached for comment.
Lee County’s Department of Human and Veteran Services, which tallies the homeless count results in Lee, is actively recruiting and working with landlords to help place clients, said Betsy Clayton, county spokeswoman.
Lee County government this year is allocating just over $1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to get the homeless into housing and $3.8 million for the same purpose from American Rescue Plan funding, she said.
“These HUD funds are used for down-payment assistance, tenant-based rental assistance and also they have been earmarked for two affordable housing projects selected through a competitive process and that are anticipated to be under contract this calendar year,” she said.