What happens when a working wage isn’t a living wage? For some, they become part of a growing population known as the Working Homeless. WINK News investigative reporter Céline McArthur continues our coverage with reaction from Mayor Kevin Anderson.
Mayor Kevin Anderson calls them the hidden homeless. In part, because there aren’t as many camping out in public spaces like Lyons Park since getting cleared out by the city, and also because their jobs often have them working behind closed doors in restaurants or hotels. But he agrees–uncovering and sharing their stories are critical to driving the change they need to survive.
Willie Joe says he knows where to go when it’s time to settle down for the night.
“I’ve been on the streets on and off since I’ve been down here in 2009.”
But with mental and physical health issues and his whole life packed into bags, he struggles to find work.
“If you’re carrying everything you own, where are you going to put it? Jobs don’t want that,” says Willie Joe.
MORE: Click here for continuing coverage in The Working Homeless series
Brent Grayson is also homeless but refuses to let that weigh him down.
“I can be the part, but I am not acting the part,” says Grayson.
During the day, Grayson works in the kitchen at The Oasis Restaurant.
Celine: “Where do you stay at night?
Brent: “I’ll go behind a building, I’ll go in the woods, you know what I am saying? I don’t go into abandoned buildings or empty houses.”
Mack is also part of the homeless workforce. He says his job as a kitchen steward at the luminary hotel gives him a sense of freedom.
“I’ve got nobody over my shoulder. Basically, you can do what you want to do, as long as you’re doing your job,” says Mack.
But the job doesn’t pay enough to rent an apartment.
“The city has to do more for the homeless out here,” says Mack. “I’ve been out here for seven years and I haven’t seen anything change in the homeless population whatsoever,” says Mack. “No change.”
I asked Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson to watch our coverage and weigh in.
“It just reinforces to me how complex this problem is,” says Anderson. “People see a homeless person on the street, and they can form an opinion or a judgment. In most cases they are going to be wrong. Not everyone is on the street by choice. Not everyone’s there because they’re lazy and they won’t work.”
He doesn’t think the cost of living in Southwest Florida will go down anytime soon.
“We can’t build or buy enough facilities to hold or house the homeless. You know there was that movie Field of Dreams–build it and they will come. I guarantee you if we got a 100-room hotel, we would fill it up and we’d be in need of another one. And we’d fill that one up and need another one. We have to break the cycle,” says Anderson.
The Mayor thinks that can be done through training for higher-paying jobs.
“Education usually equates to opportunity. You cannot, if you have low skill sets… you’re only going to get so much money. I mean, that’s the way the market works.”
He also points to transitional housing offered in the city and wonders why Grayson and Mack aren’t living there.
“Why have they not been housed? So, there may be special circumstances, which prevents me from knowing the intricacies of their cases,” says Anderson. “I can tell you one of the first things I will do is reach out. I know [Officer Ryan Beiner] and I’m going to reach out to him and say hey, what’s up with those guys and what have we done to try and get them housing?”
Brent Grayson didn’t know his options until Officer Ryan Beiner with the City’s Housing Outreach Team told him about it when they met on the streets.
“With that situation you’re in right now, it’s kind of the perfect opportunity for the homeless prevention application, and what that does is it’ll give you, if approved for it, it’ll assist you with the application fees for finding an apartment, it will assist you with first and last month’s rent,” says Beiner.
In response, Brent says, “See, that’s basically all we need.”
The Mayor wanted to know why Mack and Grayson aren’t in public housing. Since our interview with Grayson, he’s been signed up for services. Officer Beiner says Mack turned down help several times. He told Beiner he doesn’t want the help.
Keep this conversation going as we continue our investigation. Email me your feedback or story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message on the WINK News Facebook page.