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Challenges planned to raise awareness of area’s homeless

By Staff | Nov 18, 2010

Two homeless challenges will be held this weekend as an educational tool for the community.
John Milster, board member of the Lee County Homeless Coalition, said the NoHome4Me Challenge is a spin-off from last year’s challenge, NoFood4Me, which addressed the issue of hunger in Fort Myers.
The response to that effort, along with a good turnout, Milster said, helped kick off a back pack program that provides school-aged children with bags full of food for the weekend.
Sara Owen, CEO of Community Cooperative Ministries Inc., said the organization is really excited about the NoHome4Me challenge. She explained that over the last 12 months, CCMI became aware that more women and children are experiencing homelessness in the community.
Owen said with the way the economy has changed, the faces of the homeless have changed, along with their circumstances. She explained that women and children are living in cars, crashing on their friends’ sofas for a night and scrapping money for one night stays in hotels.
Owen said the challenge by no means will create a true homeless experience, but it will heighten awareness for all those involved.
The NoHome4Me Challenge will begin Friday, Nov. 19, at 12 p.m., at the Community Cooperative Ministries soup kitchen, 3429 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and end Sunday, Nov. 21. Individuals will be placed in pairs and groups for safety reasons and will be asked to sleep in places other than their home.
Those who take part in the challenge are also asked to use public transportation or their bicycles, use public restrooms, carry only what can fit in a small knapsack and limit their food budget to $1 per day.
Owen said a number of youth groups are also participating in the challenge through First Assembly of God, Riverside Church and Beach Baptist for a lock in Saturday night.
Although individuals will not be living in the streets for 24 hours, Milster said, “It will at least give you the slightest sour taste in your mouth of what is going on” in Lee County.
Owen said those who are participating in the challenge are strongly encouraged to not put themselves in unsafe places. She also expressed that panhandling is prohibited.
Janet Bartos, executive director of Lee County Homeless Coalition, said the coalition sent out close to 60 invitations to elected officials asking them to take part in the Homeless Challenge, but did not receive the response she was hoping for. She said at least 10 people will join the 24-hour challenge.
The idea of the 25-year-old challenge came from Washington, Bartos said, as an educational tool for the community about homelessness.
The challenge will also begin at the CCMI before they hit the streets for 24 hours. They will sleep in a safe location, visit the soup kitchen, apply for a job and spend the day walking around and experiencing what it is like to not have a home.
Bartos explained that they do not expect to know exactly how it feels to be homeless because they know they have a warm bed to go home to once the challenge is done.
“It doesn’t really affect us like someone who is actually homeless,” she said.
In addition to bringing awareness to the community, the challenge will also provide Bartos with the opportunity to become aware of the attitude the community has towards homeless individuals.
“I want to see the world through the eyes of a homeless person,” she said.
Milster said he will be spending a week on the street, starting this Saturday and going through the week of Thanksgiving until next Saturday to help raise awareness of homelessness.
He decided to take part in the challenge because he wants to personally accomplish a better understanding of the every day obstacles a homeless person faces.
“I feel obligated to take this on and understand the issue from inside up and bottom down, rather than chipping away at it from the outside,” Milster said, adding that he hopes his week-long adventure turns into a media frenzy to get people tuned into what is going on in Lee County.
The Lee County Homeless Coalition reported a 12 percent increase of homeless individuals in January 2010, which includes a 21 percent increase in the number of homeless families with children since 2009. The Lee County School Board reported that it had 710 homeless children enrolled last January. There are currently 2,400 homeless men, women and children living in Lee County.
“Something needs to happen,” Milster said, adding that he hopes to “inspire people to pitch in and take the initiative to understand the problem.”
Bartos said the challenges are intended to get the community involved in the issue of homelessness.
“We are trying to step up and get some more community involvement because it is something that is going to take everyone to end homelessness,” Bartos said. “It is something the public should no longer ignore.”
Those who are interested in participating in the challenges can register online at www.ccmileecounty.com.