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Homeless services needed

By Staff | Mar 31, 2011

To the editor,

The leadership of St. Matthews recently filed an official zoning application with the City of Bonita Springs. Their application is the first step toward building a homeless facility in Southern Lee County. This proposed venture will fill an important need in the area, namely the need to provide assistance and hope to the local homeless population. The steps taken by St. Matthews have led to a debate in the Bonita Springs community. Such a discussion is healthy. It is how we, as neighbors and fellow citizens, make progress.

In the last few months, questions have been raised about whether there is a need for homeless services in Southern Lee County. Specifically, some wonder whether there are enough homeless individuals in the area to fill the new St. Matthews facility. The answer to that question is, undoubtedly, yes. This is based on empirical data compiled by those who work with the Southern Lee County homeless population. It also makes sense based on what we have seen occur in the last few years.

Our part of Florida has been greatly impacted by the economic downturn. Key local markets have been devastated, and we have seen a dramatic increase in unemployment, home foreclosures and homelessness. This has led to a major financial strain for many of our local families. It has also strained the system of care that responds to those in need.

The Family Health Centers of Southwest Florida, for instance, is a part of that important system of care. They provide health services for the homeless. In the Bonita-area, the Family Health Centers operate outreach sites in coordination with the Café of Life and the local arm of the Catholic Charities. To qualify for assistance, a person has to verify that they are homeless. Last year in the Bonita and Estero region, 412 people qualified for homeless health assistance from the Family Health Centers of Southwest Florida. That is a staggering number people, a number that would inevitably decrease if the St. Matthew’s facility is allowed to be built.

The Lee County School System has also been forced to confront the impact of the recent economic downturn. Their efforts include working with children who are homeless. In the last year alone, we have seen a 26 percent increase in the number of homeless children. According to Cathy Tufaro, Lee County School District Social Worker for Homeless Families, there are 335 homeless students who attend school in the districts south zone. That is also a staggering number of people, of children. It too is a number that would decrease if the St. Matthew’s facility is allowed to be built.

I am a proponent of the proposed St. Matthew’s site in Bonita, and hope it is approved by the zoning board. As that decision nears, the ongoing debate over the facility will continue. I appreciate the concerns that have been brought up by those opposed to the project and believe in our orderly process of decision making. As we continue to discuss the merits of a local homeless facility, I hope we can all

base our views on the facts. One fact being that there definitely is a need for the services St. Matthews would provide in Bonita.

If you have any questions, feel free to take a tour of the St. Matthews House in East Naples. I have. They run a wonderful program, and save lives on a regular basis. While I was there, we also discussed the needs of the surrounding area. I asked them why they wanted to build a facility in the Bonita. Vann Ellison, the organization’s President and CEO, told me simply that currently 22 of the people they serve in their Collier County shelter actually come from the southern part of Lee County. To me, that says it all.

If the question before the zoning board is whether there is a need in Southern Lee County for the kind of services that St. Matthews provides, then they should approve the permit as quickly as possible, since there is a very real need in the Bonita and Estero region for additional services to help the homeless.

Janet Bartos

Executive Director, Lee County Homeless Coalition

Fort Myers