Juanita Bender knows she’s getting to be too old to be homeless on the streets of Immokalee, the migrant farm-working community in eastern Collier County where she’s lived for 30 years.
The 55-year-old used to be a certified nurses’ aide until injuries waylaid her. Today she only has income from Social Security Disability.
Bender was one of the people that staff and volunteers for the Collier County Hunger and Homeless Coalition surveyed Thursday. They were in Immokalee conducting their annual “point in time” survey to determine how many people are homeless in the community.
The count was scheduled to continue Friday in East Naples. Similarly, the Lee County Homeless Coalition was conducting surveys during the week.
Poverty is widespread in Immokalee, and many families double up in dilapidated mobile homes to keep a roof over their heads.
The COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years has meant job losses for many people in unsteady employment situations, like the service industry that took a beating and has since roared back to life, but not necessarily for people who lost their housing or transportation to get to jobs, social service officials say.
A big culprit for homelessness is the booming real estate market in Southwest Florida. That has meant rental rates are skyrocketing, other rentals are being converted into ownership condominiums, and private landlords who used to accept people getting back on their feet after homelessness are selling their properties, said Michael Overway, executive director of the Collier coalition.
He said he expects the homeless numbers in Immokalee to be about the same as last year and it’s hard to say about Naples because some homeless camps have been pushed inland due to new development and may not get counted.
The survey results will take months to tabulate because of the time it takes to eliminate duplicate surveys.
The 2021 results in Collier found 568 homeless, down 6% from 603 homeless in the 2020 survey.
The Lee coalition reported 394 people homeless last year a decline of 11% from 444 people in 2020.
Bender said the Collier coalition hopes to get her into a federally subsidized apartment but nothing is firm.
“I really need to do that,” Bender said at Guadalupe Social Services on South Ninth Street in Immokalee where there is a soup kitchen and showers for the homeless. “I’m way too long out here. I know it’s going to work out. I’ve got God on my side"
What is a 'point in time' survey?
Volunteers with both coalitions collect information about why individuals are homeless, which includes life factors such as family circumstances, veteran status, education, health and substance abuse history.
The data is submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development along with findings from other community-based coalitions to get a handle each year on homelessness in the state.
The findings also help local coalitions decide where to target limited social service support and enables them to apply for grants to sustain services.
Rents in Immokalee have followed the market and have gone up tremendously, similar to greater Naples, Overway said.
There’s virtually no affordable housing in Collier, he said.
“We hit a wall,” he said.
He now places people in rentals in Charlotte County or elsewhere for rapid rehousing using funds from the state Department of Children and Families. The funding helps with deposits and rent.
Early last year, the coalition was making strides getting about 25 local homeless people a month into housing but rents started creeping up in the summer about $400 a month and exploded at Thanksgiving, he said.
Some rents in apartment complexes in central Naples went from $1,250 a month to $3,000 a month starting around Thanksgiving and into the new year, he said.
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Some landlords he worked with who bought homes for $60,000 for rental income have sold them for $200,000, he said.
The days of being able put two people together in a unit together with a subsidy are coming to an end.
“I can’t put three or four people in a house to share,” he said. “We are rehousing people in Charlotte County. We have no housing available here.”
'I tell them nothing is available'
The coalition gets calls from people up north looking for a shelter bed or help if they relocate to Southwest Florida.
“I tell people not to come to Collier,” he said. “I tell them there is nothing available.”
At St. Matthew’s House, the homeless shelter and recovery program in Collier, there is a waiting list of 96 names for a bed, and upwards of 25% of the people needing help are newly homeless, according to Rick Fumo, chairman of St. Matthew’s board of directors.
The Collier County Commission this past week approved St. Matthew’s House plans to expand from 104 beds to 150 beds at its mains homeless shelter at 2001 S. Airport Road by reconfiguring interior space.
Kelsey Couture, shelter manager at St. Matthew’s, said the expansion is a win for the community.
“The increased bed count will provide more assistance for the community that’s in dire need,” Couture said. “We’re seeing residents staying longer and our waiting list is just growing.”
St. Matthew’s offers a structured lifestyle, she said, that takes care of the basic needs of those experiencing homelessness.
“Residents set goals and seek employment,” she said. “We also have a 10 p.m. curfew, so residents are off the street from then until 8 a.m. and they’re remaining sober.”
There was some pushback against the additional beds by the owners of nearby apartment complex, The Point at Naples, but representatives of St. Matthew’s told commissioners the concerns have been addressed.
“We essentially agreed to provide security cameras in the rear of the property to provide additional assurance to our neighbors that the property is well managed and safe,” Rich Yovanavich, a lawyer representing St. Matthew’s said.
Street life in Immokalee
Many of the homeless in Immokalee have formed small groups to stick together with at night for safety.
Bender stays in the same spot on the streets night after night but declined to disclose the location.
“Five of us sleep in the same spot,” she said.
During the day, she and other homeless go to the Guadalupe center which serves lunch and recently reopened its showers for the homeless after being closed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The center also provides laundered clothes to the homeless who provide the staff with their sizes.
Suzanna Rodriguez, 58, used to work in the fields of Immokalee until she was hit a few years ago by a truck and thrown 15 feet. She has back pain from the accident and no longer works in the fields.
“I will never be the same,” she said. “That’s how I ended up homeless. God will take care of me. Now I volunteer at (Our Lady of Guadalupe) church and wash all the dishes.”
Blas Hernandez, 41, who grew up in Immokalee, used to work in construction in Marco Island. His foreman picked him up every morning in Immokalee and dropped him off at night.
He lost the job when the pandemic hit and lived with his girlfriend in Immokalee until that relationship ended in December. That’s when he became homeless. He has no transportation.
He prefers to stay by himself on the streets at night to avoid people who drink or use drugs.
“There’s less problems that way,” he said.
(Naples Daily News reporter Karl Schneider contributed to this report)
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Collier County's real estate market no friend to Immokalee homeless