Fort Myers park cleared of overnight stays by homeless; ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this problem’

Lions Park in Fort Myers was empty of tents Friday. A homeless encampment…

Fort Myers park cleared of overnight stays by homeless; 'We can't arrest our way out of this problem' 1
Fort Myers park cleared of overnight stays by homeless; 'We can't arrest our way out of this problem' 2

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Roger Mercado of Lee County Human and Veteran Services speaks on the homeless issue at Lions Park

Roger Mercado of Lee County Human and Veteran Services speaks on the homeless issue at Lions Park

Andrew West, Fort Myers News-Press

Lions Park in Fort Myers sat completely empty of tents on Friday where a homeless encampment had been growing since July. 

All but two individuals left the park Friday by 10:30 p.m. The two who remained refused assistance, hoping to get into a hotel. However they were not far along enough in the housing application process to be accepted into the hotel yet.

Despite all of that, HOT Team officer Philip Youngblood continued to do all he could to help them. He was determined to assist rather than arrest. 

By midnight, Youngblood had made all the calls he could make, including calling local hotels for available rooms. Nothing was available and a homeless advocate took the two to an undisclosed location for the night.

More: Lions Park closed to overnight stays, Lee County HOT Teams, county and city continue to offer help

More: ‘I don’t want to live like this no more’: Homeless man in Lions Park helped by local HOT Team

Fort Myers park cleared of overnight stays by homeless; 'We can't arrest our way out of this problem' 3

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Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson speaks on the homeless issue at Lions Park

Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson speaks on the homeless issue at Lions Park

Andrew West, Fort Myers News-Press

Lee County along with the City of Fort Myers, law enforcement, Centerstone and the Salvation Army have been working to get those in the county experiencing homelessness the resources they need to get off the streets and out of the parks.

Since Feb. 24, the county started the Rapid Transition Collaborative, which focused on those living at Lions Park, the Fort Myers Regional Library and Schandler Hall. The collaborative’s goal is to help people obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency and stay housed.

As of Friday, 80 people have been placed in permanent housing units, 53 have been placed in hotels awaiting permanent housing, 51 have enrolled in the Rapid Re-Housing by the Salvation Army, 32 have been admitted to an emergency shelter and 19 have been referred to or placed in permanent housing from Lions Park or the library, according to data from the county.

Lee County had a goal to house 100 households in 100 days, but as of March 5, officials exceeded that with 121 households housed. That includes 193 adults and 60 children.

Friday evening anyone who was still in the park after 10:30 p.m. was subject to fines and arrests. There have always been city ordinances that have a closing time for the park, rules on staying over night and tents or structures, but due to COVID-19 police hadn’t been enforcing them.

For months Youngblood and his team had been working in Lions Park repeatedly to try and get the people living there more adequate living situations and in touch with resources. 

And for months Fort Myers Police Department had received multiple complaints about the homeless in the park from nearby residents. 

From 8 a.m. to midnight Friday, the team worked to get everyone who was staying in the park either in triage, a shelter or a hotel room to wait for permanent housing. All left the park without incident, no fines were issued and no arrests were made.

Glen Jorgensen had been staying in Lions Park for about a month and a half. He had been in and out of the hospital and ended up in triage, where he said he got kicked out for snoring. The Salvation Army Triage Center is a temporary shelter for men and women. 

He has been on the list for housing for about a month and Friday afternoon it was Jorgensen’s turn for a hotel stay.

Jorgensen had met Youngblood while he was staying in the park and Centerstone, a not-for-profit health system providing mental health and substance use disorder treatments, has been helping him look for a job.

A few days before the ordnance was going to be enforced, Youngblood put police tape around the area where people were keeping their belongings and tents for safety. People were leaving the area and some leaving their belongings.

He’d warned the growing tent city residents they wouldn’t be allowed to remain. By Friday, they were evicted.

It went smoothly and everyone helped, Fort Myers Public Information Officer Kristin Capuzzi said.

Many of the items people left behind, they helped get rid of, along with the HOT team members and public works.

At its peak, there were 32 tents in the park, Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said.

As of Friday night, there were no tents and no one staying the night.

Monday, Fort Myers City Council approved $22,000 to help get those experiencing homelessness off the streets and out of the parks.

The city purchased 280 nights of hotel stays while people await placement into Lee County’s rapid re-housing program, Anderson said.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.

For the past month, team members had been out at Lions Park, the downtown public library, and Schandler Hall Community Park to help connect people with services they need, said Roger Mercado Jr., director of Lee County Human and Veteran Services.

More: Fort Myers to pay emergency hotel rooms for homeless; Sleeping in city parks won’t be tolerated

They have been trying to engage people and get them to accept rapid re-housing.

The average time someone spends on the list waiting for housing is 30 days, but some have spent as little as two days, Mercado said. 

Once they are placed into permanent housing, they continue to work with the individuals on work and housing plans, and get them started with rent and utility assistance. 

“This has been a true collaboration, it’s been an amazing experience coming together toward one good,” Mercado said.


For Youngblood, the story of Lions Park had a happy ending. He got as many people as he could connected to resources and a step closer to permanent housing. 

“It’s been really rewarding seeing people on the streets get out of the elements and somewhere comfortable,” Youngblood said.

Youngblood now awaits his new assignment to see what next steps are.

Fort Myers park cleared of overnight stays by homeless; 'We can't arrest our way out of this problem' 4

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