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Lee County seeking public input on plan to cut homelessness

By Staff | Feb 26, 2009

Lee County is gearing up to fight a 10-year battle against homelessness with a mere $306,000.
Facing a current budgetary shortfall of $45 million — and another possible $100 million for the next fiscal year — the figure could drop to $260,000 if certain cuts are approved for the human services department.
Still, the county plans on rolling out its 10-year plan to fight homelessness by hosting two sessions for public input today from 8-10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers.
Work began on the plan eight months ago, after human services reached out to five Lee County municipalities to fund the hopeful, if not far-reaching, project.
Subcommittees were formed, demographics and categories were tossed around, and now a final draft of the plan will be presented to the public.
Human Services Deputy Director Ann Arnall said the brainstorming sessions yielded surprising results, as the face of homelessness has shifted over the last year.
“The biggest thing that was eye-opening was the demographic. It’s shifting because of the economy,” she said. “But the economy has made it easier to engage people in the dialogue because people have others that are close to them who are out of work.”
The program will live or die by the amount of money pumped through its fledgling veins and, as of now, there seems to be very little in the tank.
Whether the municipalities will fiscally support the proposed program remains to be seen, leaving human services to question how far it can actually stretch its dollars.
Arnall said the agency recently found out it will receive $881,000 for its emergency shelter program, allocated from Obama’s stimulus plan.
But, Arnall admits that a shelter program is no long-term solution to the homeless problem, especially given the continuing downward spiral of the economy.
She wonders how far the money can go.
“If there aren’t any employment opportunities at the end, what’s the point?” Arnall asked. “It used to be our demographic was working people who had some medical crisis and needed some short-term help to pull them through. We knew they were going back to work … now, that gap is indefinite.”
As of Monday, Arnall estimated that there are 931 homeless people in Lee County, based on a weeklong inventory of that particular date. Among those are 75 families, up considerably from 32 when the same inventory was conducted in 2008.
The proposed 10-year plan will not come before county commissioners for some time, as the kinks are fine tuned and public comment is considered.
For Arnall, the goals have already been somewhat decided — it is just a matter of who will step up to make them a reality.
“Who will take ownership of these individual objectives?” she asked.
Today’s sessions are open to the public. Comment will be taken without reservation or RSVP. For information, call 533-7390.