Guest column: Call to action for community’s homeless

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Guest column: Call to action for community’s homeless

Category : Media

Over the past several weeks, about 40 homeless men, women and children were removed from their homes in the wooded areas around Walmart in Stuart.

Their plight has sparked a flurry of newspaper articles and social media comment — rightfully and thankfully so!

Our homeless neighbors have been invisible and without a voice for many years, but with this attention now focused upon their plight, people are beginning to ask questions such as:

“Where will they go?”

“How many homeless people are there?”

“Are there children in the woods?”

These are perfectly legitimate questions, ones that we in Martin County should have been asking ourselves for a decade or more. But, carpe diem; better late than never.

So let’s stop complaining about a past of inaction and seize the opportunity to begin addressing the real issues of homelessness in Martin County.

First, who are the homeless?

The homeless are not limited to those few panhandlers seen on some of our street corners. The population is significant and diverse. There are men, women, children and families. They are not all addicts or alcoholics; some are, and they pose their own set of problems. Many work, and some work daily. They attend our churches. Their children attend our schools. Their camps are not simply small tents; some are very creative and substantial structures.

The homeless are by no means limited in appearance to the stereotypical shaggy, dirty person the term generally calls to mind.

Second, how many are there?

Knowing how many homeless people we have in Martin County is crucial to defining needs and crafting solutions.

But, for some, it seems the solution is to minimize the numbers to show that there really is not a problem — or that existing programs are adequately addressing the problems.

Just last week, the annual Point in Time census was taken to determine the actual number of homeless men, women and children living in the wooded areas of our county. The now publicly reported results are that there are 48 homeless people in all of the wooded areas throughout Martin County: 48!

Is that a valid number?

Let’s test it against actual facts: More than 40 people were displaced from their homes in that one small areas around Walmart. Does that mean there are only eight other homeless in the rest of Martin County? Tent City Helpers, who feed, clothe and provide for those in the woods estimated they have identified about 150 homeless people. Can their estimate be off threefold?

House of Hope, which provides daily food to the homeless, has more than 250 registered homeless. Can their numbers be off fivefold? We at Can We Help serve on average 45 people per week. Does that mean there are only three homeless people in the entire county who do not come to our meals?

The Martin County School District has identified and is servicing almost 300 homeless students. How is that possible if there is a total of 48 homeless in the county?

Until we get an accurate count of the homeless population and determine their demographic mix, it is impossible to understand the extent of the problem or craft solutions.

In the interim, how do we measure up in our care and concern for the homeless?

Consider the following:

  • There is no emergency shelter for men or women in Martin County. Therefore, a homeless person who suffers an accident, is recovering from surgery, is ill or is experiencing any type of a crisis has nowhere to go other than back into the woods.
  • There is only one nonrestricted temporary or transitional housing for women and children in Martin County. It can accommodate about 12 women and young children, but cannot accommodate men or older children, and the demand far exceeds its capacity.
  • There is no temporary or transitional housing for men in Martin County. A homeless man in Martin County has nowhere to go other than the woods.

The county owns thousands of acres of property. But, to the best of my knowledge, there has never been any discussion about outfitting a single acre of that land with portable water, showers or sanitary facilities to allow those who choose to continue to live outside to set up platform tents, small houses or other appropriate and safe shelter.

There is no nonprofit drug or alcohol rehab facility in Martin County.

To not understand the demographics of our homeless neighbors, to not be able to even accurately count their numbers and to offer virtually no form of shelter, housing or assistance is, in the words of a colleague, unethical.

All of this in a county that has a warm and generous heart, that reaches out to everything from nesting turtles and abandoned animals to our environment and our wildlife, is beyond unethical. It is simply unacceptable.

So the call to action for nonprofits, citizens, governmental officials and the rest of us: Let’s step up as the wonderful county we really are by caring for the least of these, our brothers and sisters.

Bob Durst is co-founder of Can We Help Inc., a Stuart-based charity that ministers to the homeless.


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