Meth lab discovery highlights prevalence of SWFL homeless camps

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NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. — The arrest of a woman accused of operating a meth lab at a homeless camp is shining a light on what authorities believe could be hundreds of makeshift communities tucked away in Southwest Florida.

Elizabeth Adeline Justice, 33, was jailed Monday after Lee County Sheriff’s deputies said they discovered her operation in a wooded area near Bayshore Road and Washington Avenue.

The number of meth labs in homeless camps is increasing throughout the region, according to Brandon Short, a psychiatrist with White Sands Treatment Center of Fort Myers. Justice was operating a “shake-and-bake” meth lab, according to deputies — production entails a two-liter soda bottle, a few handfuls of cold pills and some noxious chemicals.

“People a lot of the times in the homeless camps are stealing propane tanks; the materials are easy to get,” Short said. “Glass tube, Brillo pad, cotton and any type of glass cylindrical tubes — easy to procure.”

The number of meth labs in general are on the rise in Lee County, where sheriff’s deputies have responded to 21 calls related to meth in 2016. Last year, that number was nine.

Meth production is illegal, but homeless camps aren’t, depending on where they’re located, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said. Lee County doesn’t have any ordinances that pertain specifically to homeless camps, according to a county official.

An estimated 2,308 people are homeless in Lee County, data from the Lee County Homeless Coalition shows. The county’s homeless population declined 30 percent in the last year, but a new group of homeless people has emerged as Southwest Florida’s high-cost rental market has left many unable to find homes, coalition officials said.

“A lot of my folks here live in the woods, and that’s where they want to be,” said Pat Epifanio, a parish nurse for All Souls Episcopal Church in North Fort Myers. “Even if i can get them service for a house, they don’t do that.”

An outreach program at the church serves nearly 300 meals a week to many of the area’s homeless. John Eaglesfield, who’s in charge of the service, said he registered four people for the program Wednesday who are living in a tent. The number of enrollees has spiked since October, he said.

“We are supposed to be in a thriving economy,” Eaglesfield said. “Well, not down here.”

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