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Collier agencies question delay in use of federal funds to help those homeless from Hurricane Ian

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Collier County agencies for the homeless criticize local governments for what they say is a delay in releasing federal funds to help those who lost their homes in Hurricane Ian.

Around one million dollars for homeless people waits for local governments’ approval.

Hurricane Ian swept Southwest Florida nearly two months ago, leaving many homeless or at risk for homelessness. FEMA offers transitional sheltering assistance to people impacted by the hurricane. While this helps some, many face a hurdle with the requirements – including the need to own a primary residence in an area designated for the assistance.

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development created a program to people who are homeless or at risk for homelessness, in a disaster-impacted area. The Rapid Unsheltered Survivor Housing Program gave more than $6.7 million to help communities throughout Florida., but Collier and Lee counties don’t have current plans to use the money.

The first round of RUSH funding was announced on Oct. 24. HUD said this will provide outreach, emergency shelter, rapid re-housing, and other help to people. The rapid re-housing provision includes up to 24 months of rental assistance.

Collier County received $861,716 in RUSH funding, and Lee County received $288,673. Lee County said that county staff is working with “local and national technical assistance teams” to make plans for the funding. No plans have been finalized.

Collier County said its commissioners must review and accept the funding before a plan to use the money is made – but that won’t happen until Dec. 13. The county is waiting for the federal agreement from HUD.

Michael Overway, the executive director of the Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County, said that this hurts a lot of people who could use the money now.

“It just sort of boggles my mind a little bit that we're stutter-stepping when there's a lot of people who are suffering at the moment,” Overway said.

He said the HUD field disaster team contacted him and told him about the RUSH funding. He also said HUD agreed to give Collier more money than other parts of Florida, because the community partners there used their COVID-19 funding efficiently.

The issue with The RUSH funding, Overway said, is that it went to the entitlement jurisdiction –the county. He says hasn’t been reliable in helping his organization distribute appropriate resources.

“HUD should have never directed those emergency relief funds to entitlement communities. They should have gone directly to the continuums of care, and they would have gotten out into the field,” he said.

The Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County could have helped the community with the funding within 30 days, Overway said. Instead, the money sits and waits for bureaucratic measures.

As the RUSH funding isn’t being used now, local philanthropists and organizations have stepped in to meet the needs. The Community Foundation, the Richard Schulze Family Foundation and the Angel Foundation have all recognized the need – and are helping organizations like the Hunger and Homeless Coalition.

Despite the influx of support, Overway says a key issue remains – there’s no place in the area to put everyone who needs sheltering assistance.

Ray Steadman, the vice president of programs for St. Matthew’s House, said this was an issue before Hurricane Ian even hit, especially in Collier County. The hurricane exacerbated this issue, as the winds and floods wiped out homes, leaving many homeless for the first time.

“To be able to provide the necessary services to the entire homeless population that are needed, I would say that the need is an ocean and our resources are about as big as a thimble,” Steadman said.

Sarah Hartzell, the shelter manager at St. Matthew’s House, said there’s nowhere for these people to go, despite any funding that might be available.

“Even if they got, you know, a housing voucher that says, hey, we'll pay your first last security deposit, we’ll even pay, you know, 18 months of your rent. That doesn't make a home appear out of nowhere. There’s just nothing available,” Hartzell said.

Despite the need many have for sheltering assistance and available shelters, Hartzell said this issue doesn’t discriminate.

“Any one of us is a paycheck or a severe weather event away from being homeless ourselves,” Hartzell said. “A lot of our residents are first time homeless. Two months ago, they were in their own homes living their lives, And now they're homeless, living in a shelter. It could be anyone of us at any time.”

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students.