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SWFL Rapid Rehousing program working to overcome stigma

Posted at 1:18 PM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 22:58:19-04

LEE COUNTY, FLA — Randy Jackson is finally home.

No, he didn't go missing or anything like that.

But Jackson says for the last few years, he was a little lost. ​

"Centennial park was my main place. I used to sit around the fountain, well until they closed it,” he said.

After losing his job in 2016 and a two-year stint in rehab.

In 2018, he found himself without a home.

"I had a tough road to travel. Sleeping on the concrete, sleeping in the weeds, guarding my stuff,” he said.

Fast-forward to March of 2021.

That’s when Jackson says a Fort Myers police officer told him about Lee County's "Rapid Rehousing" program.

And a month after that, he was home.

"It's like Christmas,” Jackson said laughing, “I got my own room, my own closet, my own bed, my own TV, it's great!"

Here’s how the program works:

When you call the county they'll ask you a series of questions such as: Where are you staying? Are you still in a home, but facing eviction? Or are you already without shelter? What resources do you have? Do you have a job? Do you receive public assistance? And so on.

You'll then be connected with a case manager, who based on your answers to those questions, will have a better idea about where they can help place you.

"That's the premise of the program. Being able to look for units that are habitable but making sure that they are below the market rate for the program and the individual,” said Lee County Assistant Manager Marco Mora.

If needed, the county will also help pay your deposits and rent for up to a year.

But the county says you'll need to work with them to eventually wean off that assistance and find sustainable ways to make ends meet.

"They have to come up with a plan and the plan puts them on the pathway to self-sustainable housing,” said Mora.

It's work that Jackson says people have got to be willing to put in.

"Well, you have to do your part. You do your part they do their part, and everything went really smooth for me. It was no problem at all,” he said.

But not everybody's able to be placed as quickly as Jackson.

After leaving Lions Park, Dawn Cullen says she's been working hard to find a place with the help of her case manager.

Cullen says she enrolled in the program more than 3 months ago but says they're having some trouble placing her.

"I have a past, and it makes it harder for me to find a place,” she said.

If a landlord looks Cullen up, they might find her arrest record or a past eviction.

Those are two things that could make it hard for anyone to find a place to rent and it's a challenge that the county says they run into on a regular basis.

"We've been working with landlords. There's some assurance that someone is there helping them to make good decisions, but even then, we have a challenge or resistance to renting to them,” said Mora.

The county says one of the biggest concerns is about money.

"One of the things we're working with the continuum of care on is providing some additional incentives for landlords to be part of the program, doubling, or tripling up the security deposit, those types of things so that we can garner more of their trust that the program will work for these individuals,” said Mora.

Another concern is rooted in stigma about people who have experienced homelessness or who have an eviction or "past."

We asked Mora if some landlords question these folks' character or fear that they won't take good care of the rented space because of those factors.

He told us sometimes that's the case and added that the key to overcoming that hurdle is through relationships.

"It is a constant communication and letting them know and educating them about the program so that we can build their confidence and so they want to jump in and help in these particular cases,” he said.

A participating landlord says it's a stigma he hopes others can overcome.

"You get some bad eggs but, on the whole, if you do your homework and you're good with them and you give them a decent place to live, they'll be great tenants,” said Larry Twinney.

Twinney has helped rehouse more than 20 people over the last year and says the county is in desperate need of more partners

"I do urge other landlords in this whole area, help out, try it, what have you got to lose? You've got nothing to lose, give it a try,” he said.

In the meantime, Cullen has joined the list of the more than 300 people currently in the program, who are still waiting for a landlord to give them a chance.

"It could be your sister, your mother, anyone. Everybody deserves a second chance,” said Cullen.

And while she waits, she says she's not giving up hope.

"I just can't wait to have a door to shut. To just say 'Oh, I'm home.' shut the door. That'll be nice,” she said.

If you're someone who needs housing or who wants to help house people through the program, click here.