The price of living in paradise is growing, and soon, some families may be forced out of Southwest Florida.
Marissa Stafford is a Southwest Florida native, born and raised. She says recently, she’s had to work multiple jobs to support her family. They rented the same house for years, where they were happy.
That was until the pandemic hit more than two years ago.
I got COVID. I was very, very sick,” Stafford explained. “I didn’t work for a good solid two months.”
As Stafford recovered, she connected with Lee Cares, an emergency rental assistance program in Lee County.
It helped her pay rent, and Stafford was able to get current on her bills.
“I made sure they were all caught up. Every penny,” Stafford says. “Nothing was owed to them. I stayed in communication with them.”
She kept using rental assistance as the pandemic continued to affect her work. But once the moratorium on evictions ended, Stafford felt her rental company treated her differently.
“Towards the end, they just became very nasty,” Stafford claims. “Because I received assistance, they looked down upon me.”
The Staffords claim they were informed their lease wouldn’t be renewed.
WINK News reached out multiple times to their leasing company, Marshall Reddick, hoping to get more information on why. We haven’t gotten an answer yet.
With barely a month’s notice and a limited budget, the Staffords faced homelessness.
FGCU professor Dr. Thomas Felke said this experience is becoming more regular.
“The most common type of homelessness that we see is called transitional,” Felke says. “We see individuals that experience some sort of major life event, maybe the loss of a job; that’s been a very common thing that we’ve seen recently.”
The family eventually found a new rental where they pay more money to live in a smaller house. They’re OK for now but wonder what life will be like when this lease ends.
“This can’t keep continuing. Something’s got to be done,” Stafford insists. “These people are struggling; it’s not easy out there. I don’t understand why it’s allowed.”
Lois Healy, CEO of the Affordable Homeownership Foundation, says these types of situations are happening more often than ever before.
“We get this every day,” Healy said. “We’ve lived here all of our lives, why can’t I afford an apartment?”
She says the trend has gotten worse recently. “The last six months we’ve seen an uptick since rent started going crazy and housing prices went even higher.”
WINK News requested Lee County’s most recent budget for homelessness aid. It totaled more than $21 million from 23 different sources.
But the money is not all spent on housing.
More than $4.4 million went toward “mandated behavioral health.” $2.7 million was allocated to emergency solutions grants, while almost $2 million went toward energy assistance.
The fight against homelessness isn’t as simple as finding money to put roofs over people’s heads. It takes different shapes and requires a variety of approaches.
“Homelessness is not as simple as taking an individual and putting them in a home,” Felke says. “They have to be able to maintain it and be responsible for it.”
It can also be challenging for families to know where to turn for help.
“This is a complex issue. Who is ultimately responsible for this?” Felke asks. “Is it the city? The county? Government agencies? My estimation is, everybody has a role to play in this.”
WINK News reached out to Lee County for an interview about how the county is tackling the homelessness problem, but they declined our request.
We also tried more than a dozen times to schedule an interview with Lee County Homeless Coalition’s Continuum of Care group, but no one ever sat down for an interview.
Healy says local resources are overwhelmed.
“The county’s having the same problems as every other business is,” Healy explains. “Getting employees to actually work. This job is not easy.”
And even when families get connected to funding, like the Staffords did, Healy says community partners are less likely to cooperate with families that need help.
“We’ve seen a change,” Healy says. “These large corporations come in, they change the rules. Landlords need to get a grip.”
“This is to the point where this is not expensive; it’s now scary,” Stafford says. “It’s to the point where you don’t want to live here.”
“We’re going to have a lot more homeless people,” Healy worries. “A lot more homeless families. We’re gonna have a huge problem.”