Homeless Count reveals Charlotte’s invisible population

Jimmy Barber, 59, has been homeless off and on for the last 17 years. ‘This kind of living will age you, ‘he says. ‘It really will.’ SUN PHOTO BY RUSTY PRAY

– Detective Matt Woelk was on the hunt for Jimmy.

The Punta Gorda Police Department officer was taking part Thursday in the Point in Time Homeless Count with Lt. Justin Davoult and two volunteers.

Woelk met Jimmy a few times and had developed a soft spot in his heart for the homeless man.

“People who have a bad view of the homeless, that’s who they should go see,” Woelk said as he and Davoult cruised the homeless haunts of Punta Gorda in a black, unmarked SUV.

A homeless camp in Port Charlotte, where five people reported they live. SUN PHOTO BY BRIANNA KWASNIK

Trouble was, Jimmy was not to be found on this stormy morning. The first stop, at a rain swept Gilchrist Park a little past 7 a.m., turned up no kind of population. The second, under the northbound U.S. 41 bridge, was equally empty.

A man was spotted standing under the southbound U.S. 41 bridge, but it was Andrew, not Jimmy. Andrew, 49, a can of malt liquor by his side, readily answered survey questions posed by Darcy Woods, volunteer and event coordinator for the Homeless Coalition, who was among 20 volunteers who fanned out across Charlotte County to take the census of the homeless.

A volunteer heads to meet Officer Henyecz to conduct a PIT survey. SUN PHOTO BY BRIANNA KWASNIK

The Point in Time Homeless Count is a full survey of the homeless population in Charlotte County. It is designed to reveal not only how many people are homeless, but who they are and why.

Final numbers for all of Charlotte County will be available soon.

“It appears the numbers will be about the same,” said Angela Hogan, executive director of the sponsoring Gulf Coast Partnership. “One thing that struck me in the reports coming back from the teams was the number of people they identified who were in their late 60s and early 70s. I don’t have firm numbers yet but I think it will be higher for seniors.”

And this year’s count may be more complete than in the past, according to those involved.

“We had more people participate than we’ve had in years,” said Gaither Stephens, leader of the Point in Time Homeless Count. “This was the first time we’ve had the Punta Gorda Police Department involved.”

Counting people who don’t necessarily want to be found takes detective work, Stephens said. “I do believe we got a more complete count than in past years.”

The information collected will be used to inform the Gulf Coast Partnership of the types of programs and services most needed by the homeless in the county.

Counting, surveying

After he was spotted under the bridge, Andrew answered questions from Homeless Coalition Volunteer Darcy Woods — he’d slept in the park the night before, he said — but did not know Jimmy.

Patrick, 39, was sleeping in an empty car wash bay when Det. Woelk and Lt. Davoult greeted him. Soft-spoken and articulate, Patrick described himself as an electrician by trade, a social drinker who did not use illicit drugs.

He knew Jimmy but hadn’t seen him for a while.

There was some question about the effect the bad weather would have on the accuracy of the count, but Stephens, Gulf Coast’s count point person, said the rain actually worked in the volunteers’ favor because it would keep the homeless in their tents and camps maybe longer than usual.

“I feel like the rain helped us since people stayed in their camps rather than heading out in the rain,” said Hogan.

The downpour didn’t deter a group of volunteers and Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Lou Henyecz from participating in the count. His group included volunteers Bonnie Saxman, a nurse with the Florida Department of Health who was armed with flu shots, and Jocey Henderson, director of veterans services for Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

Volunteers try to stay dry while conducting PIT surveys. SUN PHOTOS BY BRIANNA KWASNIK

First, Henyecz stopped at the McDonald’s in Village Marketplace in Port Charlotte, where one man was surveyed. He led deputies to two other homeless men he knew that slept outside Edgewater United Methodist Church.

Henyecz then led volunteers through Murdock Village, where many camps are located. The camps are set far back in the woods, out of sight, for fear the occupants will be kicked out.

Kathy Shea-Ross, housing specialist at the Homeless Coalition said, “If something triggers, scares or bothers them, they’ll pick up and move.”

In total, 23 camps were accounted for, 17 of which were occupied at the time volunteers and Officer Henyecz showed up. Four camps showed signs of being active within the last day or two, but no one was present, and two camps appeared no longer active.

Joan Allenckson, volunteer for Jesus Loves You Ministries, said she used to never understand why she saw so many people biking with full bike hitches: “It’s because they have no safe space to keep it, they can’t trust to leave it in their camps,” Allenckson said.

Volunteers in the Port Charlotte/Murdock group spoke with 26 individuals and completed 22 surveys. At least two of those people said they were veterans, and are eligible to receive services from organizations that assist veterans in the community.

Saxman offered individuals the flu or Hepatitis A vaccination.

Dave, 74, had both shots. He was initially reluctant, but he said he was glad they were in his arm. He told Saxman every time a doctor told him he had to get a shot, it was in the rear.

Dave, 74, received his first flu and hepatitis A vaccine from registered nurse, Bonnie Saxman from the Department of Health in Charlotte County. SUN PHOTO BY BRIANNA KWASNIK

He was staying with a woman, Jennifer, for a few months, though he couldn’t remember her name. They met in the woods, and decided to stay together, because her tent was falling apart, and his was in better shape.

Meanwhile, in Punta Gorda, Woelk and Davoult were dogged in their search. They combed the warren of streets and brush behind the Walmart on Jones Loop. They found some abandoned camps, an occupied shack at the end of MacGeorge Street, and a fishing pole.

But no Jimmy.

Found

Finally, they decided to take one more pass through Gilchrist Park. By now, it was nearly 8 a.m., and this time Jimmy was there, sitting in the gazebo with his bike at the bottom of the steps, his backpack, fishing pole and a crumpled pack of Marlboros. He doesn’t have a cell phone.

Jimmy Barber agreed to take part in the survey and a subsequent interview. He wore a scraggly white beard and layers of clothes that had seen better days. He has been homeless off and on for the last 17 years. He receives disability benefits from the government.

Darcy asked him the first of 21 questions on the survey:

“Where did you sleep last night?”

“Outdoors.” He wouldn’t say exactly where, just outdoors. “I don’t sleep in the same place every time.”

Darcy asked him his age.

“I’ll be 59 tomorrow. I feel a lot older, though. I really do. This kind of living will age you. It really will.”

Darcy went on with the survey.

When she got to the disability benefits, he said he’d been receiving them since 1986. “It amounts to $756 a month.”

Over his homeless years, he “rented a few rooms here and there, booked a few hotel rooms here and there. But those hotels, they take your check away, so I quit going to hotels.”

He admitted to drinking a little alcohol and enjoying a joint now and then, but when he was asked what kept him from finding housing, it wasn’t alcohol or drugs.

It was money.

“It’s how much money I receive. That’s what keeps me from getting housing. Now, I can take my check and give it to a landlord and sit there and watch the paint crack and starve to death. Seven hundred and fifty-six dollars doesn’t go far.”

Halfway houses and group homes were dens of hard drugs, Jimmy said, and he wanted nothing to do with them.

So, he sat there in the gazebo, by himself but not alone in his problems.

Davoult asked to take Jimmy’s picture so other officers in town would know him when they saw him.

“Sure,” Jimmy said, and then he joked: “Just don’t put me on a milk carton.”

They won’t, but now, at least, he’ll be a little less invisible.

Sun Staff Writer Brianna Kwasnik contributed to this report.

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