NORTH FORT MYERS — Dozens of people are now living in the grass behind the Hancock Bridge Square shopping center after being asked to leave the parking lot.
Two weeks ago, deputies told people to leave the property at the request of the owner. We've learned many of them simply picked up their tents and moved them a few feet back onto a strip of grass behind the shopping center.
But moving that short distance might mean they’ll be able to stay there a whole lot longer.
“We all got off the property, and we came to the right of way. It’s the right of way, everybody can stay here," said a man living in the camp, who did not want to be identified.
He’s just one of dozens of people still living behind the shopping center. There’s even a stream where people fish for food. We took a walk through the camp, that now extends far back into the woods, and we talked with the manager of the property, Dewey Duke.
“It’s going to be like Lions Park is my fear. It’s going to grow out of hand," said Duke.
Duke said the only reason he asked deputies to clear the parking lot was because the owner was facing more than $20,000 in fines from code enforcement, and the clean up was expensive as well.
“We spent around $18,000 to clean up the mess that was there. 22 truck and trailer loads of old mattresses, old sofas," said Duke.
Now, Duke has put up signs warning people not to camp there. He said, as long as they’re on the strip of grass near the creek, the problem is out of his hands.
“It’s called a right of way where in fact, it’s not our property. It actually belongs to the County," said Duke.
But the man we spoke with said moving tents back a few feet does nothing to solve the bigger problem.
“You’re doing nothing but pushing us around. You ain’t doing anything right, and we’re still here," said the man.
The County did tell us it reaches out to the people living behind the shopping center on a regular basis, trying to offer them services or a temporary place to sleep. We also saw a deputy come through to check on the camp while we were there.
There are several resources the County offers to address homelessness, including the following:
- The Lee County Department of Human & Veteran Services’ coordinated entry phone line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for those who need sheltering or homeless prevention services. The number is 239-533-7996. - The Salvation Army’s Homeless Resource Day Center, 2450 Edison Ave., Fort Myers, or 239-789-1169. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.