Annual Lee homeless count increases 3% over last year

Annual Lee homeless count increases 3% over last year

“An estimated 2,789 people are homeless in Lee County, according to the latest … homeless count.” – Janet Bartos, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition

An estimated 2,789 people are homeless in Lee County, according to the latest annual homeless count.

The number, compiled from January 2020 to January 2021, comes from the Lee County Homeless Management Information System, said Janet Bartos, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition.

The county’s homeless management system collects data throughout the year from organizations that receive funding to help people who are homeless.

The number is a nearly 3% increase from 2019, when the count was 2,714. In addition, the homeless coalition conducts a Point in Time census once per year to count homeless individuals. The data is provided to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This year’s census was taken over a 24-hour period with the help of many volunteers, Ms. Bartos said. The census asked people where they slept the night of Jan. 26 and included both sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals and families.

The number is just a snapshot, but it is important because it provides an idea of who experiences homelessness throughout the year and helps in community planning, Ms. Bartos said. It aids organizations that help the homeless in designing effective strategies and where to concentrate efforts, she said. “It also helps us learn about the people we are serving.”

The Point in Time count documented 394 homeless people. Of that number, 57, or about 14.5% were “chronically homeless,” defined by HUD as an adult homeless person with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

Among the 394 surveyed:

¦ About 29% percent reported having a disabling condition.

¦ There were 30 families with a total of 65 children.

¦ There were 39 veterans, with 35 already involved with a case manager to obtain housing.

Last year’s Point In Time count was 444, Ms. Bartos said. However, this year’s 394 number is considered an undercount because different methodology had to be used due to the impact of COVID-19, she said.

Some sites that served the homeless, like churches, may have closed or operated intermittently. Some services were modified. For example, instead of feeding meals to people, brown bag meals were given out.

Shelters didn’t close, but may not have been able to take in people for several days at a time if someone tested positive for COVID-19, she said.

The coalition is an advocacy group made up of individual stakeholders and agencies who are engaged to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief, and one-time.

Members include nonprofit agencies, government agencies, faith-based members, business, family and individual members.

The Coalition represents the Continuum of Care, a local planning body that coordinates housing and human services funding for homeless families and individuals. The group includes funders, service providers, local businesses, and advocates who meet monthly.

The Point in Time survey did show a nearly 40% decrease in the number of chronically homeless, Bartos said.

That is due to a new coordinated entry system operated by Lee County Department of Human and Veteran Services, she said. Instead of operating on a first-come, first-serve basis, the system does a vunlnerability assessment of the person contacting them for help to see what their needs are.

Housing and service programs for the homeless are provided in part through Continuum of Care with funds from HUD. The 2020 funding of nearly $2 million, announced in January 2021, will help Lee County sustain existing programs and begin new programs to help people who are homeless.

The programs are operated by Lee County Human and Veteran Services, Community Assisted and Supported Living, Lee County Housing Development Corporation, Jewish Family and Children Services, Saint Vincent de Paul, Goodwill Industries of SWFL and The Salvation Army.

One new service being provided by the Salvation Army is a Homeless Resource Day Center in Fort Myers, opened in January. Here people who are homeless can take showers, do a load of laundry, use a computer, or have lunch, said Terryn Streets, Salvation Army program director of social service ministries.

They can also access some services, including the new coordinated entry system or help with Social Security benefits. The site, at 2450 Edison Ave., is a former substance abuse center.

Salvation Army is definitely seeing an increase in people who are homeless, Ms. Streets said. This could be attributed to things happening in the economy, such as families on the brink of homelessness due to the lifting of a moratorium on evictions. COVID-19 definitely has contributed to homelessness, she said. “We see a lot of people who have fallen on bad times because of loss of income.”

The homeless coalition is here to help, Ms. Bartos said. “What I can tell you is we see more resources now than ever for people who are homeless.” ¦

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