Purple Heart

In times of need, local veterans need your support

Every January, members of the Hunger & Homeless Coalitions of Collier and Lee fan out across the two counties to estimate the size and make-up of our local homeless population.

As the annual count in Immokalee, Fort Myers and Naples resumes, those of us on the frontlines of the battle expect a troubling trend to only increase: the rising number of unhoused seniors as well as military veterans. In many cases, those in need fall into both categories.

In Collier, the 2023 count identified more than 700 people living on the street — an increase of over 50 percent from the previous year, and one attributed to increased displacement after Hurricane Ian. That included nearly 200 seniors (a nearly 400 percent increase) and 51 veterans (more than double the previous year’s tally).

Our region rightfully earns kudos as a retirement paradise, a late-in-life getaway where sun, sand and ample free time continue to draw throngs of snowbirds as well as new arrivals.

Beneath that shine, though, a chronic shortage of affordable housing for workers, coupled with increased life expectancy and a lack of veteran services (including mental health services and housing assistance), has turned our community into a national case study of this growing crisis.

That was the case in September, when an extensive Wall Street Journal report on “Why More Baby Boomers Are Sliding Into Homelessness” focused on Naples. The Journal cited data showing that an average rental in town was priced at more than $2,800, according to Zillow, compared to an average Social Security payment for retired workers and their dependents of less than $1,800.

At the nonprofit Warrior Homes of Collier, founded more than a decade ago, we’ve helped give back to the brave men and women who served our country with honor by opening four homes for local veterans over the past three years, primarily thanks to the generous support of private donors and charitable foundations.

The first to open, Alpha House, is a short-term, transitional residence for those in recovery from substance abuse. The Bravo and Charlie Houses are set aside for seniors on fixed incomes who are no longer in the workforce and receive rent subsidies to defray their expenses, which is known as supportive housing.

Delta House, our newest supportive housing facility, offers 10 apartments for up to 20 veterans, both men and women.

Beyond providing a roof over their heads, Warrior Homes of Collier also connects these veterans with support services such as mental health counseling and peer support through the David Lawrence Centers as well as educational opportunities, including college scholarships.

At the state level, plans are underway to build a 120-bed nursing home for veterans on the vacant, county-owned Golden Gate Golf Course. With a projected cost of $120 million and both federal and state support, the county has set aside $40 million in escrow and the donated land for its contribution.

The county share comes from a one-cent sales tax surtax that voters approved in 2018 and which has since funded millions of dollars in capital projects in Collier.

That surtax has since expired — two years earlier than expected — with elected officials now suggesting a new referendum be placed before county residents in 2026.

It’s generated more than $525 million in revenue toward such current and future capital improvement projects as the Vanderbilt Beach Road extension, completion of Big Corkscrew Island Regional Park, three new county emergency medical services stations and a new career and technical center planned in partnership with the Collier County School District.

Unfortunately, beyond the bricks, mortar and asphalt, none of the four community priorities identified by a citizens’ oversight committee formed to monitor county spending have yet come to fruition. That includes construction of a new mental health facility to increase crisis support — a glaring need for our local veterans as well as the community at large.

When it comes to housing and support services for veterans, waiting for local government to get its act together is a losing strategy.

For decades, veterans who’ve served our country with dignity and honor have grappled with higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness, and are at increased risk of suicide.

These brave warriors need the support of our community and deserve safe, clean and accessible housing, as well as support with mental health and wellness.

As a proud veteran and full-time Neapolitan, I’ve been overwhelmed by our community’s generosity when it comes to lending a helpful hand to those who served our country. As scores of those wounded warriors continue to call our little slice of paradise home, let’s be sure that our commitment to protecting those who protected us remains resolute — and isn’t solely dependent on government “solutions” that may never arrive. ¦

— Dale Mullin, a Naples resident, is founder and president of Warrior Homes of Collier. For more information, visit www.wwcollier.org

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