Homeless count expected to explode

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on November 12, 2022.

OUR POSITION: We’re yet to get a grip on how bad our homeless situation is now that Hurricane Ian has made a bad situation worse.

Even before Hurricane Ian, we had a homeless problem. No one would deny that.

And, even before Hurricane Ian, housings costs and rents in Southwest Florida were among the highest in the nation and out of the reach of a good percentage of wage earners here.

Now, with hundreds unable to live in their homes, the situation could easily be deemed an emergency. The asking price and/or rents for homes — especially one not damaged by Ian — is, or will be, colossal.

And that means more homeless in Southwest Florida and more families moving away from here to places they can afford — something that was already happening every day.

“We’re still trying to wrap our arms around (what the homeless situation will be),” said Carrie Walsh, director of human services for Charlotte County. “There will certainly be a lot of people displaced, but not necessarily homeless.”

Walsh said FEMA’s vouchers to help displaced people find shelter in hotels, for example, have failed to be a huge help because of so few hotels in the area with available rooms and/ or prices that limit the effectiveness of vouchers.

“There are a lot of people in Charlotte County that are having to go upstate, or even to Georgia to find a place to stay right now,” she said.

Charlotte County, and FEMA, are trying to ease the situation. The county will allow RVs or campers to be parked in driveways of homes that are unsafe to live in. The process of finding or renting such a vehicle or temporary home has not been easy — or cheap — however.

And FEMA is bringing in temporary housing for people, but that process takes time and the demand appears greater than FEMA’s ability to bring in trailers, or at least in a timely manner.

Jennifer Johnson, with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Sarasota, says sheltering families during the hurricane went well but the real challenge is just beginning.

“We see families that were on the edge of economic insecurity that are really struggling now,” Johnson said. “They are living in cars.

“I spoke with Mothers Helping Mothers (group) and they said this may be the final nail in the coffin for a lot of families that were struggling after COVID,” Johnson said. “There’s going to be lost wages from employers who have shut down. There are homes and cars damaged and families who might find it hard to get to a job or their kids to school. And then we have the inflation and the high cost of food.

“It definitely is challenging. We do have a lot of people stepping up like Habitat for Humanity and faith-based organizations. United Way in Sarasota too.

“But this is going to be a long-term need. The lack of affordable housing we had before (will just make it worse).” Johnson said. “We’ve had a lot of the affordable housing wiped out.”

Johnson said part of the solution is for people to “value our workforce.”

For our communities to get back on their feet will be a challenge. Obviously, the state and county governments must bend over backwards to bring affordable housing online. But that can take years and we don’t have that kind of time. It was already difficult for employers to find workers and now many of their prospects will be moving away.

Walsh offered some glimmer of hope.

“There are a lot of smart people working on this,” she said, “and they’re working hard.”

Image Credits: Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images