November 26, 2014

The Other Naples

Guy Perfetto, 53, lives in the woods less than a mile southeast of Port Royal, Naples’ most expensive neighborhood. While showing visitors around his camp, he steps over crushed 16-ounce beer cans, shreds of cardboard from prepackaged foods and a dismembered blonde doll. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were coming,” he says, walking past a pile of garbage.

Guy’s embarrassed, he says, because he smells bad. He’s wearing two fairly clean sweaters over his rail-thin frame to guard against a chilly morning, but he hasn’t showered in days. His pale eyes are sunken, his face weather-beaten and his smile is nearly toothless. Two dogs tethered to trees bark and thrash. Guy bends down and rubs one mutt’s ears. “Not mine,” he says. “I can’t afford the dog food.”

A few miles to the north, Katherine Pittman, 34, lives in a duplex next to a scenic, duck-filled lake. A tall, effervescent brunette from North Carolina, she sits on the couch in her living room as her one-year-old son, Benjamin, cuddles tightly to her chest.

Behind them, a framed photograph of Benjamin covered in chocolate cake is mounted on the wall below a “Happy Birthday” sign. They’ve hung there like trophies for a month, but neither is coming down—not only because Benjamin is Katie’s first child, but because the party marked the end of the worst year of Katie’s life, a year she spent much of as homeless.

Before the recession, both Guy and Katie worked in the service industry. They weren’t rich, but they made enough for rent and food. The downturn, however, cast both into the streets.

Today, Katie and her son have the security of their own apartment. Guy, meanwhile, has lived in a homeless camp for four years, bathing in creeks, scavenging cigarette butts from ashtrays, and living off the government for food stamps and medical care.

Why the different outcomes? Katie’s slide into Guy’s kind of long-term vagrancy was prevented by a federal grant administered by Collier County.

With the recession lingering, social service workers say more and more Neapolitans are arriving at a fork in the road, leading to either long-term homelessness or long-term housing. Sometimes the deciding factor is the aid, much of it originating with the federal government, provided by the nonprofits and government agencies that serve the poor of Collier County.

But further investigation reveals that the free federal aid funneled through the Collier County government falls short of its potential. This leaves hundreds of endangered Naples residents without the assistance they are eligible to receive.

And those at risk of homelessness aren’t just the itinerant drunks, drug addicts or mentally impaired. Due to record foreclosures and a double-digit unemployment rate, the face of homelessness now includes the struggling family. According to a 2009 Housing and Urban Development report filed by the Collier County Housing, Human and Veteran Services department, Collier has an “overwhelming local need to address the increasing homeless family population.”

The same report, written by members of the Collier government, also says the county lacks the budget, the staff and the political will to do so. There are those, however, who continue to buck the system, battling to make life better for those in dire need.

 

On a recent saturday, Guy woke up at 6 a.m. and biked two miles to the Tree of Life Church in East Naples, where he was the 50th person in line for food. By the time he left, the line stretched to the street, the longest he’d ever seen it.

Guy moved to Southwest Florida in 1990, trailing his mother from St. Louis. He worked 15 years as a mechanic, but as the ’90s population explosion begot the ’00s construction boom, Guy moved into unskilled labor. He earned enough to let a room, and buy food and cigarettes.

Then came the bust, and in two years, construction in Collier plummeted by two-thirds. Guy was among the first to lose work. His mother, who’d been a financial support, died of cancer. He had two DUIs, forcing him to sell his prized ’85 Harley-Davidson, and served some jail time for not paying child support. 

Guy worked out of a day labor bureau, but jobs came rarely and soon he was sleeping behind the building. After another stretch in the county jail (because he couldn’t afford to pay child support, he says), with no place to go, he took the advice of a jail friend and moved into the East Naples woods.

He barely slept that first night. He was terrified.

Within east naples’ borders, million-dollar gated communities abut roadside hotels. The multimillion-dollar Naples Botanical Garden is down the street from a series of homeless camps buried under trash and human excrement. And businesses contend with a disproportionate majority of Naples’ homeless population.

No county district mixes affluence and poverty like East Naples, which is why it’s the theater of war in the area’s poverty battle.

This conflict pits local social service nonprofits such as St. Matthew’s House, the city’s only full-service homeless shelter, against the Collier government. The impetus of the dispute is simple: Community leaders think that social agencies, many of which are based in East Naples, attract a large number of indigents to East Naples, while social agencies want support from the county government. 

Neither side will ever get most of what they want. Consequently, the temperature of the quarrel gets heated. 

Vann Ellison, CEO and president of St. Matthew’s, says East Naples County Commissioner Donna Fiala told him, in regard to St. Matthew’s support of homeless people, “If you stop feeding the cats, they’ll go away.” Three local social workers repeated this rumor to Gulfshore Life. When asked about the incident, Fiala says, “I’ve heard that repeated. I have no idea where that came from. I never said anything like that. … I don’t even think in those terms.”

Though disputed, Cat-gate is evidence of the resentment that colors the relationship between East Naples community leaders and the area’s poorest residents. “I’m impressed as heck with St. Matthew’s House, but when I bring that [sentiment] back to our board to tell them what’s going on, they say, ‘Heck, we don’t want that in our community,’” East Naples Civic Association President Ted Beisler says.

Leaving cat analogies aside, Fiala believes that the presence of human service organizations causes East Naples’ top-heavy vagrant population. “The homeless camps are located in this area because they want to be close to the showers and food,” she says. “It’s been a magnet for people that don’t want to be helped.” 

But according to a study commissioned by a local redevelopment agency, East Naples has been the bad side of town since the 1970s, when developers took advantage of population growth by quickly building cheap commercial buildings. Businesses abandoned these ugly structures, many of which had their parking lots shaved off when Tamiami Trail was widened, for other, newer hubs around Naples. Their tax revenue fled with them.

However it happened, East Naples is in a bad way. Today, the majority of the area rates seven or higher out of 10 on the HUD Foreclosure and Abandonment Risk Scoring System (two East Naples zip codes rated 10—the worst), and more than a quarter of all mortgages are of the high-interest, subprime variety.

Despite this historically poor area, Fiala says the county commissioners in the mid-’90s “made it a policy never again to support social services” for two reasons. First, the commissioners don’t think that the government should decide where taxpayers’ charity dollars are spent. Second, Fiala reasons, not being able to fund every social agency would trigger discord.

Additionally, the county’s social program budget has been cut since 2007 as county revenues fell 30 percent. Fortunately, the Housing, Human and Veteran Services department recouped millions in funding from federal grants. The department’s director, Marcy Krumbine, says those dollars now constitute 75 percent of her budget.

However, the solution is proving more complicated than a simple switch from county to federal funding. That’s because the Collier County government is routinely late in disbursing the funds. “We have poor people, we have families, we have kids living in cars because our county is so delinquent,” says Ellison.

 

Katie moved to naples in February 2000 as a roving waitress looking to make money during season. She decided to stay permanently after being overwhelmed by the city’s wealth. “I thought Naples was recession-proof,” she says.

It wasn’t. Katie, who became a masseuse, saw her client list shrink. Weekly customers became monthly, seasonal clients arrived later and later.

In fall 2009, she gave birth to Benjamin. Then her husband lost his job, and he and Katie soon separated. “We wanted what was best for Benjamin,” she says.

The following 12 months saw her savings evaporate, and she and Benjamin were left homeless. 

When money ran short, Katie and Benjamin played musical chairs between friends’ homes. The thought of living on the street created an endless string of tear-filled, sleepless nights. Friends began prefacing conversations with: “Now, don’t cry.” She left Benjamin in the care of friends to commute every day to Fort Myers, where she found work, departing before the sun rose and returning after it set.

On the way home, she listened to the backlog of creditors’ messages on her cell phone. She then looked at the money she worked for all day. It was never enough.

“I want to be a good mother. How am I going to raise my boy starting like this? How can I go another year?” she asked herself. “I just wanted to keep it together. Things were unraveling.”

In April, after months of wandering through the social agencies in East Naples looking for help, she was referred by St. Matthew’s to the Collier County Housing Authority. There, a counselor suggested she apply for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program grant, or HPRP.

Katie filled in the application and waited.

The hprp is a federal stimulusgrant issued by HUD. Using temporary rent assistance, utility subsidies and finance classes, it battles the nation’s growing number of almost-homeless and homeless.

Collier County’s Housing, Human and Veteran Services department applied for and received almost $900,000 through HPRP. But instead of directly issuing funds to the needy (as Lee County does), Collier plays banker to private nonprofits, issuing reimbursements for whatever they spend.

But the reimbursement scheme is failing, sinking the HPRP grant program in Collier County. Untimely repayments are putting the nonprofits under financial strain. For example, Catholic Charities struggles to make payroll because of unpaid grant expenses, and the Salvation Army diverts other revenue to offset its grant losses. Although it needs money, St. Matthew’s pointedly avoided the HPRP grant because the county has been as many as 11 months late in repaying other federal grants. “It would bankrupt us,” says Ellison. “It would really destroy us.”

Slow repayments also mean a slower disbursal of aid, helping fewer people. And because Collier has spent so few dollars, HUD may strip the county of its grant this summer.

Statistics confirm that Collier is lagging in its grant spending. According to Recovery.gov, which tracks stimulus spending, Collier used just 8 percent of its money through September 2010, the most recently reported month on the website and a year into the program. HUD officials say they would be “concerned” with any county using only 10 percent of its funds after the first year, and by contrast, Lee, also receiving nearly $900,000 through the grant, used 72 percent. (Palm Beach used 51 percent; Miami-Dade used 47 percent; and Sarasota used 24 percent.)

Furthermore, Youth Haven and the Salvation Army representatives say they spent nearly $130,000 of their organizations’ own money and were still waiting for $81,000 in reimbursements. 

“Not only [does Collier County] not provide any funding, but the funding that comes from state and federal comes through a very inefficient system,” Debi Mahr, executive director of the Collier County Hunger and Homeless Coalition says. “We’ve all been in situations where we watch our balance sheets go down, down, down, because we’re providing services and we haven’t received reimbursement from Collier County.” Ellison adds that, according to HUD officials he spoke with, Collier is “the worst county to deal with anywhere.”

County government officials recognize the problem. “It’s been an ongoing situation for a number of years,” County Commissioner Jim Coletta says. “These funds do no good just sitting in the county’s coffers, gathering dust.”

Krumbine says repayments have stalled because of strict HUD requirements that the nonprofits are unaccustomed to meeting. But delayed reimbursements are nothing new in Collier County; for another stimulus grant, Collier has spent 8 percent of its funds through September, while Lee has spent 99 percent. 

Yet, the county has success with grants when it takes an active role in their disbursal. Ellison of St. Matthew’s says that when Collier County Clerk Dwight Brock became involved, “solutions rather than obstacles were found, and new grant administrators have greatly improved repayments.” Even with HPRP, county spending jumped from 8 percent to 24 percent as of Dec. 6, according to HUD figures not yet reported on Recovery.gov, after instituting government-led paperwork classes for the nonprofits and adding the grant administrators.

Both Brock and Coletta agree with Krumbine that nonprofits’ grant invoices have been largely inadequate, but they lay some of the blame at the county’s feet. “Ultimately,” Brock says, “it falls on the shoulders of the people awarding the grant to teach [nonprofits] what it requires.”    

Plus, Collier needs to increase its spending almost sevenfold in the second year to keep its grant. (The thinking here is that if Collier has not spent 60 percent of the money in two years, it probably doesn’t need it.) HUD public affairs officer Gloria Shanahan says that Collier is projected to meet its 60 percent requirement by the second year, based solely on the county’s performance from mid-September to
early December.

But even local grant participants are dubious about the county spending the needed $461,953 after using only $71,357 the first year. “That’s impossible,”  Youth Haven’s Bryan Lee said at a September meeting. “Nobody here has the staff to see any more clients. If I spend all of Youth Haven’s money, that’s [only] $250,000.” 

Lee then asked one of the Collier County representatives if the government would consider giving a lump sum to one agency to better facilitate the program, a strategy more in line with what Lee County does. “Would you ever see this happen?” he asked.

“Not with us,” she replied.

 

A month after katie applied for her grant, Collier County—via the federal government and through the housing authority—gave her $5,000 of rent assistance spread over 10 months. Katie used it to rent the two-bedroom lakeside duplex for $750 a month. “It’s small, but good for a small family,” Katie says.

Of course, Katie’s success can’t be judged for years. But according to early numbers, the grant has been successful—just not in Collier County. Through September, 734 people have left Lee’s program and are living in permanent housing without government rent assistance. In Collier County, the total is
only 153.

Katie says the money has allowed her to get on top of her finances; it was a brief pause button letting her catch her breath. In fact, she’s been such a model participant that housing authority leaders recently asked her to speak at a local meeting of human service officials.

“I was very nervous,” she says. “I didn’t want to look like an idiot. I didn’t want to look like a toothless, trailer-park indigent. I wanted them to see that not everyone who needs help is indigent.”

Katie was homeless, but because of HPRP she was never “that” kind of homeless; she never had to endure what Guy has to endure.

Guy is that kind of homeless.

 

In the fall, a sheriff’s deputy kicked Guy off undeveloped land belonging to a real estate company. So he set up camp at the end of a cul-de-sac and waited for his next eviction.

Mark Poole lived in the home closest to Guy’s new squat.

An electrician, Mark recently moved his mother and three daughters into a trailer there after a tough few years. There was a divorce, the death of a brother and severe behavioral problems with one daughter, problems that make Mark’s eyes water and voice crack.

“We want balance in life,” Mark’s mother, Linda Roberts, says. “We want to be able to know where our next meal is coming from. We want to be able to afford the kids’ school uniforms.”

When asked to reflect on his difficulties over the last few years, Mark concedes: “It’s been hard.” But then he recounts all the people who helped him, including his boss’s family and the congregation at North Naples Baptist. “I never knew people could be so kind.”

Mark decided to repay that kindness to Guy. So he invited the vagrant to move onto his property. He didn’t stop there. When the clutch went out on his truck, Mark paid Guy $50 to help him fix it. Guy used the money to take his first trip to the laundromat in weeks. When Mark grilled steak for dinner, he tossed one on for Guy. “It was this thick,” Guy says, holding his fingers a few inches apart.

Considering his own housing spiral—one that saw him fall from a house to an apartment to a dented, rusted-out trailer that his mother won’t allow to be photographed out of shame—Mark has a legitimate excuse for not doing charity work. So why does someone battling homelessness go out of his way to help the indigent?  

Mark appeared perplexed at the question. He twisted around to look at Guy’s unfurled tents, pausing for a moment. Then he turned back around.

“Because they’re worse.”   

 

All in all, guy really likes his campsite. He has a makeshift kitchen under a tarp plus two tents, one of which has a cable-wired, 13-inch TV, and Mark promised to leave the trailer to him—as soon as Mark wins the lottery. “I don’t even consider myself homeless, really,” Guy says.

Some might say he’s given up, but he’s still hopeful. A friend says he might have a job for Guy this season. And he hopes to once again ride a motorcycle like his beloved Harley. “Hell, yes,” he replies, when asked if he wants an apartment. “Anything beats this.”

Is Guy a lost cause? The federal government believes the solution is to house the homeless no matter their condition. Studies show that permanent housing lessens the cost of medical care for the poor—which accounts for most of Collier’s social service budget.

But few locals agree with the federal government. Fiala points to the job creation potential of projects such as the proposed Jackson Laboratory, while St. Matthew’s representatives say vagrants should earn the ascent from camp to shelter to apartment. Others bemoan the lack of affordable housing in Collier County. The Hunger and Homeless Coalition is working on a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

What we do know is that Katie has hope for her child’s second year, hope that wasn’t there during his first. She works four jobs now, and “with the help of that grant, I’m going to be a success,” she says.

We also know that Guy received no grant while sliding into vagrancy, and that he continues to live under the pines with no realistic end in sight.

“If you say it’s not the government’s responsibility, if the local government is saying that, then whose is it then?” Mahr says. “The [Naples Winter] Wine Festival is stepping up, the funders, the United Way, they’re all doing what they can. Who else is going to pitch in here?”