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

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How much does it cost to get homeless people into housing? What does the community get in return? Those are some of the questions you’ve asked, following our special series, The Working Homeless. We get some answers.

These children have a place to call home, thanks to help from Saint Vincent de Paul CARES.

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

I asked them how much it costs to get one person off the streets and into stable housing with support services. The average: $5,799. If you leave the homeless on the streets, studies show it can cost taxpayers six times more because of the costs of shelters, emergency room visits, hospital stays, and jail time.

“We can end their homelessness for under 10 forever,” says Raposa.
Along with the cost savings, there’s another community benefit you can’t put a price tag on.

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

“This is one of about half a dozen camps like this that I am aware of,” says Mitch Watson, Coordinated Services Director, Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County.

Nestled in the woods, behind a store in East Naples, you’ll find this: a canopy for shelter, supplies for survival, a bike for transportation and a rather unlucky address—the number 13. This may not be your American Dream, but it is the reality for a growing number of people in Southwest Florida.

“The fact that somebody, regardless of how clean it is, or how dirty it is, it’s 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 was homeless—on and off—for nearly a decade. It began in 2009.

“I was married. I had a family 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,” says Watson. “I made myself feel better at the end of a long day by drinking, and ultimately that lead to a rollercoaster life. That one bad decision turned into 10 years of misery.”

Watson lost his job, his home, and his family.

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

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

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

Watson’s mission now is to pay it forward. He goes back to the streets and into the woods to find others who need help, like Angelo Mazzarone III.

“It’s not easy, This is no walk through the park,” says Mazzarone. “Only the strong can survive out 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,” says White.

Celine: “May I ask how long have you been homeless?”
White: “Off and on for a long time, but God blessed me with a vehicle.”

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

Celine: “You just happen to be in one of the most expensive places in Florida.”
White: “And I love it. I wouldn’t move out of 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 have been housed in the 20 months he’s been working at the Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County.

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

Milton Coffee is one of the first people Watson helped. He showed Milton a photo of himself from when they first met.

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

That has changed.

“Oh, it’s a happy ending here, yeah, But I am gonna tell you something, it isn’t easy,” says Coffee.

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

“It’s a screwed-up life and you don’t need to be out there,” says Milton. “All you’ve got to do … there are people in this world that will help you now.”

Providing a hand, and not just a hand out is what Watson does now. Paying his way, by paying it forward.

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

Watson says his story isn’t 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. That lived experience is critical to connecting with people and getting them the services they need and may not know how to get.

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