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Sadness in seclusion

Tucked behind Town Hall and Topp's supermarket is a life of despair. It's also right next to Bay Oaks, in sight of our children. What to do about those so unfortunate remains a big dilemma. 

April 20, 2016
By John Morton ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

It doesn't sound right to describe a place as an ideal one in which to be homeless, but the secluded setting behind Topp's supermarket lends itself to just that.

First, there's the proximity of the grocery store, its numerous shopping carts, and the dumpster in back where expired food arrives. A long and tall wooden fence lines the back of it.

Next door is Town & Country Liquors, convenient to those with addiction. It sits alone in a building of which the other section is vacant.

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This makeshift bed by a dumpster behind Topp's supermarket provides for a place to sleep for the homeless.

Alongside of that is an alleyway that is an extension of Gulf Beach Road, now closed off and home to construction equipment. Its fences are even covered by tarps.

Then there's the public dock, which is engulfed in foliage. The canal upon which it sits lends itself to bathing and transportation by boat.

Adjacent to it all is the sprawling, wide-open recreation campus of Bay Oaks. Behind it is the denseness of the Matanzas Pass Wildlife Preserve. All of it is public land.

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Finally, two doors down is Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church, which is home to the God's Table outreach program. There, people can get breakfast, a bag lunch, a shower, clothing and even medical attention.

Basically, all the amenities they need are lined up together.

"If I were homeless, that's where I would go," said Don Stilwell, Fort Myers Beach's town manager. "And to try and move them out of there, all you'd be doing is moving them somewhere else down the street. It's a real challenge.

Fact Box

Help for vets improves county's homeless situation

The Lee County Homeless Coalition reports that people continue to enter into the category of homeless. Meanwhile, the needs of veterans are improving.

"It's not just unemployment anymore but a lack of affordable housing in the area," said Janet Bartos, the coalition's executive director. "We get people who call and say they were getting by, but suddenly their landlord raised the rent as much as $200 per month."

Data collected by the coalition in January of 2015 indicate the county had 2,816 homeless residents, Bartos said. New data will be available soon, she said, and she expects good news in the form of a dip in numbers as great as 30 percent. It comes mainly as the result of assistance for veterans.

"Thanks to our programs we have put in place for veterans, we were able to house 227 of them in 2015," she said. "They have made a big impact."

"I have been in jurisdictions where they pay them to leave, but that's not the answer."

Would a shelter help?

"Sure, but where would the money come for that?" Stilwell asked.

(The nearest shelter for homeless males who are single is a rescue mission on the east side of Fort Myers, according to the Lee County Homeless Coalition).

When asked to estimate the number of homeless here, Stilwell said "It's so hard to gauge. They seem to come and go."

Stilwell does take about four or five calls per month, he said, regarding vagrancy on the island, but not all come in the tone of a complaint.

"It's more like people are concerned," he said. "And I feel the same way. We just had an individual we discovered living under Town Hall and we had to ask him to leave, which is hard. And just the other day I was walking behind the outfield fence at Bay Oaks and came upon someone's living area and it was a really awkward feeling. I mean, I almost felt like I was intruding upon them. This was there home."

Stilwell said the island is known for its compassion, whether it be for environmental causes or the needs of the less fortunate.

In fact, when the Town Council attempted to remove the God's Table program 10 years ago over a zoning compliance issue, the community rallied in support and is stayed.

'We keep to ourselves'

Members of the homeless or transient population on Fort Myers Beach keep a low profile, said a man who stood on the dock Thursday.

He had a prosthetic leg and did not want to identify himself, saying only he was a war veteran.

"We keep to ourselves," he said, "and we like it that way. Everyone is respectful."

You don't see them holding signs or approaching cars or loitering in high-traffic areas like Times Square.

"We don't see any real criminal activity back there," Stilwell said.

Council member Anita Cereceda agreed.

"It's been the situation back there for 30 years and we've talked about it for 30 years, and nothing's changed," she said. "They really police themselves. I wouldn't say it has gotten worse and I don't know of a single violent crime that has taken place back there. I'll tell you this much - the teenagers that come here to party from Fort Myers are a much bigger problem for us."

Cereceda said the area gained a "hang-out" reputation dating back to the days of the old Casey's Alley bar, which closed in 2008 and has since been town down.

"I think that's where it started," she said. "There, you could play a game of ping pong or pool while you were doing a load of laundry in the same building. It brought some transient people and they kind of just stayed."

Tony Schall, a spokesman for the Lee County Sheriff's Office, also said the Fort Myers Beach homeless situation isn't one of great concern.

"It's not a problem for us, per se, because much of that is public land," he said. "They have the right to be there like anyone else. We did put up some fencing to try and keep people out of the mangroves as mainly a safety precaution. But we don't go back there searching for homeless people, looking to round them up. To us, it's black and white - if they are breaking the law we'll move in, just like we'd do with anyone. We're not singling out homeless people."

Some troubling signs

But are people following the rules? Signs at the dock say no loitering and no alcohol, and use after dark is prohibited, but a visit to the area showed otherwise in the form of empty alcohol containers strewn about and consumption taking place in broad daylight.

And tragically, in December a homeless man who was sleeping on the dock rolled off and drown. Left behind on the dock were his personal effects.

Issues of trespassing are different. Last month, Lee County requested and received authorization from the town to prosecute trespassing cases, giving Fort Myers Beach a bit more muscle. Schall said the private owner of a fenced-off vacant lot directly behind Town Hall on Tropical Shore Way did file a request that it be monitored for homeless activity, with a trespass warning and then ticket as the consequence.

Council member Tracey Gore knows it's a problem spot.

"I had a woman on that street email me while I was running for council that her mother was afraid to walk their dog past that lot because of the homeless people there," Gore said. "That's not fair that people should have to worry about doing something as simple as that."

Last week, a visit to the lot with Gore revealed bags of clothing, bedding and several suitcases.

"Boy, that's tough to see," said Gore. "I wish this didn't go on, but I remember a lot of the same growing up here - there were always homeless people and I always felt bad for them. I remember 'Jim the Can Man' and how we always took care of him.

"And now my husband and the others in the shrimping industry do the same for homeless people when they return from their trips, giving them the leftover food or supplies. It's why you'll see some of them walking around in shrimping boots."

Gore paused, noting compassion and enabling can be a fine line.

"At the same time, I don't want people to think that Fort Myers Beach is the place to come to live the homeless lifestyle," she said. "Do you think this is taking place on Sanibel? I don't think so. That's why I'll never support some of the town's plans to put things like public bathrooms or shelters or showers at our beach accesses. It attracts this type of thing. And our residents near those spots do not want it."

Cereceda, who said the plight of the homeless will always occupy a soft spot with her, admitted how times have changed when it comes to the topic.

"Walking out to the beach at Connecticut Street the other morning, I was startled to find a man sleeping on the bench there," she said. "Did you know that nowadays when the town talks about the design for a bench, it has to make sure it comes in a certain form so people can't lie on it? It's a shame things have come to that."

Not the best neighbor for some

Off the beaten path as they are, the homeless community's proximity to Topp's makes for a tricky co-existence.

"They cause me huge problems," said manager Chris Mashman. "They panhandle and they chase away business. I had a lady tell me, 'I can't stand in line behind someone like this' and left. The guy had (urinated) himself. We asked him to shower, but he doesn't. Would you want to stand in line with someone like that?"

Mashman said he has made a crackdown on unwanted loitering an emphasis the past six months.

"I think I've chased about 80 percent out of the parking lot, but I still get them coming in to buy beer and cigarettes. They can't afford food, but they somehow afford those."

Behind the building exists a very troubling scene, as bedding made from either cushions or sheets or even palm-tree leaves line the fence near the dumpster.

"I am always finding them sleeping back here or going through our dumpster," said Ron Romero, the man in charge of maintenance at Topp's. "If they help clean up back here, we'll give them some food, but most don't care about the mess.

"Then, they take our carts. That's why we put our name on them, so I can retrieve them. I even find them on the beach. But when I take a cart, they say I 'took their wheels' and get mad or even violent."

During Gore's walk through the area, Romero suggested that the fence behind Topp's, which he said is city owned, be limited so it didn't offer seclusion to both the store and the adjacent public dock.

"It's too easy for everyone to hide back here the way it is," he said.

Said Gore, "If this is a public dock we certainly aren't making it look or feel that way for the public."

Then Gore stumbled upon the fact that access to Bay Oaks was not completely fenced off, as she had thought.

"This is all way too close to where the kids play," she said. "When my kids were here for years, I don't recall them being able to walk through here. It needs to be fenced off.

"When I was young and a ball went over the fence, we were told not to try and go get it. And I don't think we even could because you couldn't get through."

Romero said kids constantly cut through the area, to and from Bay Oaks.

"The young ones are scared when they see the (homeless) people," he said. "I wave them through when they see me back here, but I tell them it's not a good idea."

During Gore's visit, a female Bay Oaks employee walked past escorted by a male town employee, returning to the campus after opening up Chapel by the Sea for the seniors who play bridge. It's part of her duties.

"Yes, I don't always feel comfortable going through here so I ask for someone to walk with me when I can," she said.

It prompted Gore to say she is planning to request a meeting between the council, the town's Public Safety Committee and the sheriff.

"We need to do something about this," she said.



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