WINK investigates the cost of helping the homeless in SWFL, what communities get in return

COLLIER COUNTY

How much does homeless housing cost? What does the community get in return? These are some of the questions you’ve been asking yourself following our special series, The Working Homeless. We get answers.

These children have a home thanks to the help of Saint Vincent de Paul CARES.

They are at a move-in celebration, along with others recently housed by the organization, including Brent Grayson.

I asked them how much it cost to get someone off the street and into stable housing with supports. Average: $5,799. If you leave homeless people on the streets, studies show it can cost taxpayers six times more in shelter costs, emergency room visits, hospital stays and jail time.

“We can end their under-10 homelessness forever,” Raposa says.

Besides the cost savings, there’s another community benefit that you can’t put a price on.

“The one-time investment to change the trajectory of a person’s life will impact that life for years to come.” – Michael Raposa, CEO, St. Vincent de Paul CARES

“It’s one of about half a dozen camps like this that I’ve been to,” says Mitch Watson, Coordinated Services Director, Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County.

Tucked away in the woods, behind a store east of Naples, you’ll find this: an awning for shelter, supplies for survival, a bicycle for transportation, and a rather unlucky address: number 13. This is not maybe not your American dream, but it is reality for a growing number of people in Southwest Florida.

“The fact that someone, no matter how clean or dirty, is their home,” says Watson.

Watson gets it because he’s been there.

“It takes me back to when I was living on the streets,” says Watson.

The 55-year-old Navy veteran has been homeless, on and off, for nearly a decade. It started in 2009.

“I was married. I had a family that had a corner lot. I had three cars, I had a good job, I made six figures,” says Watson. “I thought I had everything in front of me. I thought it was the perfect life.

Then he started drinking.

“I self-medicated,” Watson says. “I felt better at the end of a long day drinking, and eventually it led to a roller coaster life. That one bad decision turned into 10 years of misery.

Watson lost his job, his home and his family.

“I was living in the heat in the humidity, I was living without a roof over my head,” Watson says. “I begged, borrowed and stole to get the things I needed when I was homeless.”

He struggled for years to get sober. It wasn’t until December 2019 that he pledged to make it happen.

“It’s still fresh in my memory. I still think about it today. How easy it would be to go back to that lifestyle,” says Watson. “It’s this work and awareness that keeps me sober.”

Watson’s mission now is to pay it forward. He returns to the streets and the woods to find other people who need help, like Angelo Mazzarone III.

“It’s not easy, it’s not a walk in the park,” Mazzarone says. “Only the strongest can survive here, believe me.”

He also introduces us to Navy veteran William Bennet White.

“It’s not fun to sleep out there under a bush or out there in the open,” White says.

Céline: “Can I ask you how long have you been homeless? »
White: “On and off for a long time, but God has blessed me with a vehicle.”

White says his apartment caught fire and he had to leave. Now he is looking for a room to rent.

Celine: “You happen to be in one of the most expensive places in Florida.”
White: “And I love it. I wouldn’t move from here for nothing!

There aren’t many affordable options in the Greater Naples area, but Watson says the Coalition is getting people off the streets.

While Mazzarone and White are works in progress, Watson says about 290 people were housed in the 20 months he worked at the Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County.

Watson says seeing them open the door to their new home for the first time is “a phenomenal experience”.

Milton Coffee is one of the first people helped by Watson. He showed Milton a photo of him taken when they first met.

“I actually see someone there who knows where they’ve been but doesn’t know where they’re going,” Coffee says.

This has changed.

“Oh, it’s a happy ending here, yeah, but I’ll tell you something, it’s not easy,” Coffee says.

He thanks Watson for helping him navigate a system he couldn’t on his own.

“It’s a rotten life and you don’t need to be there,” Milton said. “Whatever you have to do…there are people in this world who are going to help you now.”

Providing a helping hand, and not just a helping hand, is what Watson does now. Paying one’s way, paying it forward.

“I’m 55, couldn’t ask for a better way to spend my 50s, 60s and maybe even 70s doing something I really love and can enjoy,” says Watson. “And it even pays me, so I can pay the bills.”

Watson says her story is not unique. He says many people who have been helped off the streets are grateful and return that favor by working in places like homeless coalitions. This lived experience is key to connecting with people and providing them with the services they need and may not know how to get.

If you have a story you would like Celine to investigate, email [email protected].

Copyright 2022 Fort Myers Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written permission.

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