Hidden In Plain Sight

Susanna Rodriguez, 54, packs up her new tent and hygiene kit on her bike during the annual homeless count by The Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County at Guadalupe Social Services in Immokalee on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. Rodriguez’s home was destroyed in Hurricane Irma last year and she is now homeless. (Photo: Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News)

NAPLES DAILY NEWS: Leland Thomas Jr. is industrious. He’s got a boom box strapped in the basket of his Panama Jack bicycle. A travel coffee thermos fits snugly in a cup holder attached to the handlebars.He has no concerns navigating around the potholes of neglected streets in Immokalee, where he’s lived all his life.Also, the 51-year-old is proud. He has persevered against a bullet that’s lodged behind his forehead and a lifetime of brain damage. Sometimes he can’t think right. At the curious age of 4, he picked up his mother’s gun. He shot himself in the mouth. Hospital surgeons told his mother removing the bullet would most surely cause him to die.

On Thursday, the Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County set up tables at Guadalupe Social Services in Immokalee to interview residents about their lives, if they are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Being homeless includes not having a steady place to stay, which includes doubling up or tripling up in apartment.

The annual “point in time” survey data will be reported to the state Office on Homelessness in the Florida Department of Children and Families. The findings help the local coalition secure grants and coordinate services with other agencies. The Florida Department of Health was on hand Thursday to offer flu shots and blood pressure checks.

Thomas lives in an apartment near the Seminole Indian Casino, a far cry from when he was homeless for 15 years. He used to work in the fields in Immokalee picking peppers and tomatoes. “I would sleep under bridges or behind the church,” he said, gesturing toward Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church on South Ninth Street. The church is next door to Guadalupe Social Services, where needy residents can get showers, clothes and lunch during the week. Thomas got into the apartment a few years ago after the David Lawrence Center, a local mental health center, helped him get Social Security disability benefits. His family in Immokalee helps him out. He likes being on his own.

“I don’t have nobody fussing with me,” he said. “I wake up and it’s peace and quiet.” At Thursday’s event, Thomas collected a hygiene kit, food and other supplies. He proudly showed off the new bicycle. “My sister bought it for me March 1 when I turned 51,” he said.

Hurricane Irma’s landfall in Collier County on Sept. 10 made hardships much worse for many Immokalee residents who struggle daily with substandard housing and low-wage jobs. The 20 sleeping bags and 20 tents from the United Way that the coalition brought Thursday were gone in a flash. Many people coming to get supplies at the event said their trailers are still damaged, Christine Welton, the coalition’s executive director, said. “They are literally left to live outside in a tent,” she said. “I could easily use another 20 tents.”

Beth Nielson considers herself lucky enough. She’s been living in a trailer for the past three months. The triplex where she lived caught fire after Irma. She and the other residents got out in time. “I lost a lot of clothes in the fire,” Nielson, 54, said. She’s on disability for a back injury after a wreck 10 years ago on Interstate 75 near Lake City. She used to work as a migrant worker until the accident. The triplex is being rebuilt, and she hopes to move back there. Her days drag on until then. “It’s very boring,” she said. “I walk around and visit people. I can’t work. I wish I could. I lay awake every night in pain.”

Also on hand Thursday in Immokalee were outreach workers with Project HOPE, which was initiated with a nine-month grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support people in Collier and Lee counties with their emotional and behavioral health needs after Irma, according to Nydia Adames-Petty, the community liaison for the project with NAMI of Collier County. The team consists of 12 outreach workers who visit the hardest hit areas of the two communities. The organization has a confidential referral line, which is 239-260-7302.

Welton, with the homeless coalition, said she would like to see agencies come together to work on an affordable housing project for seniors that would be subsidized housing. The need has been there for a long time and became more evident after Irma. “They can’t go out and get work,” she said. “I housed one (individual) who was 88 years old after Irma in Lehigh. At least if we do one project, we can get others. It will be a collaborative effort. There would have to be a ton of people involved. It’s a long haul.”

The data collected from the homeless count, which continues Friday in the greater Naples area, will take about 30 days to review and put together in a meaningful report, said Mike Overway, the community resource network adviser for the coalition. According to the federal Housing and Urban Development, the “point in time” surveys that homeless coalitions use capture about 30 percent of the homeless population in a community, so triple the results for a more accurate count, he said. Where the surveys are more helpful is getting information about the education levels of the needy, which ultimately can help connect them to career resource training to potentially move out of low-wage jobs, he said. Besides the lack of affordable housing, the other main driver of homelessness is the lack of life-sustaining jobs, he said. “People want to be stable,” he said.

The 2017 homeless survey found 621 people who were homeless in Collier, yet the tougher number to accept was 881 homeless children, which is a solid figure and comes from the Collier County school district and its homeless liaison. This year, the district’s figure of homeless children collected during enrollment is around 1,150 children, according to Caroline Brennan, the homeless education and foster liaison with the school district. About 460 kids became homeless as a direct result of last year’s three major hurricanes, including Irma, she said. The other two were Hurricane Harvey which made landfall in East Texas and Louisiana on Aug. 25-29, and Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.