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Hundreds experiencing homelessness in Lee County gather for free services

Line forms outside the City of Palms Park entrance as people experiencing homelessness wait for free services from vendors inside and outside the complex.
Hayley Lemery
A line forms outside the City of Palms Park entrance as people experiencing homelessness wait for free services from vendors inside and outside the complex. It was part of the annual count of homeless people in Lee County.

The final day of Lee County’s annual census count of the area's homeless population concluded Saturday with Homeless Service Day and Veterans Stand Down hosted by the Lee County Homeless Coalition at the City of Palms Park and Sports Complex.

The census is conducted through a point-in-time (PIT) count. From Jan. 23 through Saturday, teams were stationed in over 20 popular homeless areas around Lee County to survey as many people as possible. After the homeless people answered the survey, they were given Lee County pocket guides, a bus pass, and connected with services offered by the coalition.

“We know from a national perspective, it's always an undercount, because you can't get to these folks everywhere because they are in such unique settings,” Therese Everly, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition, said.

In years past, a few hundred people would attend the annual service event, which heavily impacted their census data. Everly said that this year they prepared for 400 people because many people were displaced by Hurricane Ian.

The data collected at this event will be given to Lee County Human and Veteran Services who will go over the data to exclude duplicate surveys.

The survey asks for full name, date of birth, gender, marital status, current military service, if they suffered from any conditions and if they have any family members living with them. It asks where they stayed the previous night, if they have a regular place to stay, if they became homeless because of Hurricane Ian, how many times they have experienced homelessness in the past three years, and what caused them to become homeless.

Kenny Edmundson became homeless right before Hurricane Ian. He served in the U.S. Army from 1984-1986, before the Gulf War.

“I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up,” Edmundson said with a chuckle. He took college courses for two years while in the Army, studying environmental science, and then occupational safety and health.

Edmundson shared that he is working with the housing authority and is currently on a waiting list. He didn’t know what to expect when coming to the service event but was open to anything they were offering for veterans.

Vendors inside City of Palms Park handed out free food, hygiene kits, backpacks, flu shots, pamphlets, and information on veteran benefits. Referrals for substance abuse and mental health counseling were available.

Everly said that last year the annual service event occurred amid the widespread outbreak of the Omicron COVID-19 variant and many outreach programs were canceled.

"We had to improvise last year, we had a smaller Homeless Service Day and Veteran Stand Down, it was done in the parking lot of a church. So that's probably contributing to the low turnout. I really have no idea what to expect this year,” Everly said.

For the second year, the Coalition invited the Lee County Clerk of Courts and the Lee County Tax Collector for veterans and people experiencing homelessness. This was to provide an opportunity to receive assistance with unpaid court fines or clear any offenses.

Options for free Florida IDs were also available for those who pre-registered with help from local social workers. Judge Josephine Gagliardi attended this effort.

KellyAnn Torstrup, 37, attended the event to find services for her partner, David, who was receiving help to detox from alcohol. She said he has been homeless off-and-on since he left the U.S. Army in 2015. She did not provide his last name.

Torstrup said David lost his current home because of Hurricane Ian, where he also lost all his IDs, including proof of his 12 years of military service. She said she also lost her proof of military service from her previous marriage. She said she was medically discharged after boot camp ended due to a car accident.

“He drinks because it releases his pain from the military and PTSD,” Torstrup said of her partner. She hopes to start a family with him once he gets sober, and when they find a place to settle down.

“I gave everything up for him, I fell in love with him,” she said of David.

She explained that her parents have a home in Lehigh Acres, but seven people were living under the same roof. She said she suffered from claustrophobia when she was in that situation.

“With them living with us, I’m cooped up in my bedroom, I have nowhere to go except get on the bus and ride around,” Torstrup said.

On Saturday she received phone numbers from vendors and said she plans to start contacting people on Monday to find housing for when her partner gets out of treatment.

Therese Everly of the homeless coalition said she was not sure when this year's final count of Lee County's homeless people would be done.

Outside the gate of the park, where all the vendors were lined up, licensed cosmetologists and barbers from Cape Coral Technical College provided free haircuts. Alexis Pollock was one of the professionals working at the event.

“I love making people feel like themselves, any little bit that we can do to help people feel better in their situation,” Pollock said.

She had just finished trimming and braiding a woman’s hair. After looking in the mirror, and applying bright pink lipstick, the woman embraced Pollock.

“Everybody’s really grateful,” Pollock said.

This story was produced by Hayley Lemery, a student-journalist in Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at hklemery9681@eagle.fgcu.edu