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Lee County residents made homeless by Hurricane Ian get help, resources via outreach

A couple carries their belongings out of a flooded mobile home community in Iona Thursday, Sept. 29 one day after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County.
Amy Beth Bennett
South Florida Sun Sentinel
A couple carries their belongings out of a flooded mobile home community in Iona Thursday, Sept. 29 one day after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Lee County.

A new app and phone number are the "gateway to all housing and services for persons who are experiencing homelessness."

Homelessness has been an issue in Fort Myers and Lee County long before Hurricane Ian laid waste to our area. The Lee County Department of Human and Veteran Services is now reaching out to share resources with the countless families newly without a home due to the storm.

The county has developed a new app, called HVS REACH, and a new phone number to guide displaced families who might be new to the process. Answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 239-533-7996 is the "gateway to all housing and services for persons who are experiencing homelessness," according to a Lee County press release.

"If there's an individual or a household that is experiencing homelessness or wants to talk to somebody about the experience with Ian, and because they've got some some different needs that they have not been able to find an agency yet to meet, they can call that number and talk to staff and they'll go through an assessment process to hopefully get that person pointed in the right direction," said Roger Mercado, director of Lee County Human and Veteran Services.

Mercado recognizes that some people may be unfamiliar with the county resources available to them, especially if they're newly displaced.

"We know there are many folks who are living in tents in their front yards. We know many folks that have, you know, moved in with friends and family and so we want to be able to meet the needs of everyone in our community, regardless of the situation that put them in that current state of homelessness," he said.

The 239-533-7996 number connects to a staff member who helps complete assessments for those experiencing homelessness as a result of the storm. The team, along with city and state agencies and faith-based organizations, offers a variety of resources ranging from housing assistance, FEMA application assistance, how to appeal a FEMA denial, health & behavior issues, muck and gut work for your destroyed home, or with the potential of colder weather this weekend, a place to shelter, find a hot meal or a blanket.

"We're anticipating a drop in temperature this weekend into the low 40s, and so our department is in partnership with some other agencies (that) have a severe weather outreach program," said Mercado. "If the temperatures are projected to drop below 40 degrees, we will mobilize teams into different locations of the community, engage with folks, provide them coffee, blankets, hats, socks, whatever they might need. But more importantly, the opportunity to get into shelter out of the cold weather."

Lee County's HVS REACH app can help users find additional resources, with notifications for the latest information.

"The acronym for REACH stands for resource engagement and communication hub," said Mercado. "We know a lot of folks may not have Internet or electricity at home, but they have a cell phone that they can charge every day, and so we've made a platform a little more accessible to reach out for services."

The app can help find assistance for rent, electric, water, housing rehabilitation, and down payment assistance, along with the schedule for mobile food pantries, and severe weather notifications.

The HVS REACH app can be found in your smartphone store. In addition to the phone number, 239-533-7996, people can visit the Homeless Resource Day Center at the Salvation Army, 2450 Edison Avenue in Fort Myers. Services can also be found at leegov.com/dhs.

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Pam James