Guest opinion: When it comes to the homeless, stop pointing fingers and assigning blame

Kevin Anderson
 |  Special to The News-Press

Here’s a harsh reality: for a myriad of reasons, there are people who are suffering from mental health issues, substance abuse, chronic unemployment, or underemployment; all of which contribute to homelessness.

There are over half a million homeless people in the United States and this issue has plagued our communities for decades. 

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Another harsh reality: the city and county charters, nor the state or federal constitutions obligate government to feed, clothe, or shelter people.  The government does however, out of compassion, support and provide assistance to numerous programs designed to help those less fortunate.  Yet another harsh reality: during an election year, people will shamefully exploit the plight of the homeless for political gain.  Most of these people have ignored the problem for years but are now “advocates” attacking government officials because the problem exists, all the while failing to bring forth viable, workable, or practical solutions.  Some even go as far as to say, “They are not homeless, Fort Myers is their home.  They are houseless.” That’s a nice, catchy little phrase but the bottom line is; no matter what title you give the problem, we still have people living on the streets.  And they are not entitled to occupy a public park, destroy the facilities, urinate and defecate in public, or claim the park as their residence.

Understanding the types of homelessness along with the root causes is the first step to fixing the problem. Chronically homeless people have experienced homelessness for at least a year, or repeatedly, while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability. Situationally homeless people are individuals who are considered to be experiencing homelessness when they are facing some sort of housing, health care, financial, or job loss crisis.

When homeless services are provided, these individuals are usually able to locate and obtain another stable housing situation. Episodic homelessness refers to individuals who are currently homeless and have experienced at least three periods of homelessness in the previous year. These individuals are often younger and suffer from some type of disabling condition, such as substance abuse, mental illness, and/or medical problems.

Hidden homelessness includes people who become homeless but find a temporary solution by staying with family members or friends, living in squats, or other insecure accommodation. Each type of homelessness requires a different approach. Root causes of homelessness include lack of economic opportunity and education, physical and mental health issues, substance abuse, and the lack of housing and access to financing.  Providing shelter without needed services is not a solution.

While this is a very complex issue, I believe there are potential benefits to a housing first strategy; however, I don’t see this as a program the city should solely fund. Rather, the city should coordinate and assist with obtaining state and federal funding.  It will take the coordinated efforts of the private sector, the Lee County Homeless Coalition, the philanthropic community, as well as government at all levels.  There are numerous services that are needed to address this issue including mental health counseling, job training, financial coaching, and substance abuse treatment, to name a few.

The responsibility and obligation to look after the homeless is much bigger than the City of Fort Myers. Matthew 25:42 says, “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” 

Let’s stop pointing fingers and assigning blame. Instead, let’s come to the table with arms unfolded and minds open, with the intent to have open, honest, meaningful, and respectful dialogue, and with a common goal of finding practicable, workable, and sensible solutions to this very serious problem.

Kevin Anderson is the Ward 4 councilperson for the City of Fort Myers. He is also the Mayor elect for Fort Myers.

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