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United Way house attempting to aid local ‘hidden homeless’

By Staff | May 21, 2009

The “new face of homelessness” is the phrase most used to describe Lee County’s evolving sociological problems.
The truth though is much more complex than a single phrase would allow. Yet, it is still indicative of a situation that is changing faster than government or social service organizations can keep up with.
In Cape Coral, another term is emerging to characterize the complexities of the situation: the hidden homeless.
Officials at the United Way/Community Cooperative Ministries’ new resource house are warning that many residents are quietly going about the struggle of homelessness.
They are often living two lives: one during the day and another at night.
“The Cape is unique because the canal system affords a lot of bridges,” said Debra Almeida, CCMI’s chief operating officer. “People will often sleep there and then get into their cars during the day.”
Almeida and her staff are trying to battle the rising tide by opening the “Cape Cafe” at the resource house.
The cafe offers free pizza, courtesy of Little Ceasars, plus the opportunity for hungry or homeless people to access a number of social programs.
Families and individuals have the opportunity to take home food and sit with a case manager to discuss their individual needs.
“We really use hunger as the gateway to bring people in,” Almeida said.
A case worker for 15 years, Blanca Perez has been working in Lee County for about four years.
She has only recently moved to the resource house near city hall, but Perez said the kind of homelessness in the Cape is different from what she has worked with in Fort Myers.
The majority of the cases she is working on are those who have been in the real estate or construction industries and have fallen on hard times.
Most of, if not all, of the families have come from a life of affluence, and adjusting to a life relying on social or public help has proved difficult. Often, those same people do not know how to access that help.
“People who had a beautiful home, good job, two cars … they know what it was to have beautiful things,” Perez said. “When you live your whole life one way and it changes, you’re going to need help, but you have to learn how. If you never needed help, how would you know?”
Traffic at the resource house has been sparse over the past two days, but Almeid and Perez both think the numbers will increase once word begins to spread.
Beth Sanger, director of the Cape Coral Community Foundation, praised the arrival of CCMI and the United Way resource house, saying the timing is crucial to help battle what she predicts will be a sizable homeless population.
Sanger and the CCCF are embarking on a summer-long campaign to help feed the hungry children of the Cape. The group recently donated $5,000 to CCMI for a food backpack program at Hector A. Cafferata Jr. Elementary School.
Sanger added that the time is now to tackle homelessness in Cape Coral, and all of Lee County, while the population is still low.
“The numbers are realistic,” she said. “But I don’t think Cape people know where to go (for help). Now we have people who need food 24/7.”