The Hidden Faces of Southwest Florida

Posted on December 18, 2011


By Brittany Cagle

Everyone has forgotten your name. You pace endless streets in tattered shoes. The soaked clothes grip the skin of your back. No one can sense your hunger pangs. The only place to sleep is a bus shelter.

You become invisible in a frenzied world of strangers.

“People don’t want to see the homeless problem,” Justin Boushay, a local volunteer at the Food Not Bombs gathering. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Volunteers work for nonviolent social change and attempt to address serious problems at no cost to the government. Every Sunday, the group feeds the homeless in Centennial Park, Fort Myers.Boushay says this is Fort Myers’ hidden problem.

“It’s scary to think that people would want to hide the homeless situation from you,” Boushay said.

Last January, the Lee County Homeless Coalition took a census of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless. The census documented 1,054 homeless persons. Among the people surveyed were 83 families with 145 children.

“We saw the community and how people couldn’t even afford living space,” Boushay said. “They could barely provide themselves with the right nourishment.” He views hunger as a big issue in the county and something that everyone deserves to be aware of.

Food Not Bombs is a small group of volunteers who use community and personal resources. Members cook food within their own households and take donations from restaurants, such as Panera Bread.

“It can be extremely difficult at times because we need a certain amount of people to make a grand portion of food,” Boushay said. He hopes to expand the movement beyond Centennial Park. “We have to get the message out there and encourage people to come back and eat with us,” he said.

Boushay stated that Fort Myers isn’t acknowledging the amount of food waste throughout its schools and restaurants. Every week facilities waste food that could help the situation in Southwest Florida.

“People brush the idea of malnutrition under the carpet,” Boushay said. “They think as long as there are homeless shelters the situation will go away. Yet, people continue to starve,” he said.

In other cities like Orlando it is illegal to share food in parks and public places. The 2006 laws restrict sharing food with groups of more than 25 people.

The ordinance requires those who do this charitable sharing to obtain a permit by the City Hall. A group is strictly limited to two permits per park for a year. The law is in response to complaints of citizens who were disturbed by the presence of homeless in the parks and public places.

“Orlando took a big stab at Food Not Bombs because more than two-dozen people came out every time there was a food sharing,” Boushay said. “People who have the power and money didn’t want to see that.” Boushay is concerned that the laws may potentially come to Southwest Florida.

“That’s something that scares us as we hope to grow bigger,” he said. Since the ordinance passed in Orlando, police have arrested 25 volunteers for feeding the homeless without a permit.

Another concern for volunteers is the restriction of the first amendment. Food sharing is considered to be a form of speech, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance still provides ample areas for groups to share food elsewhere in the city. Some might argue that the freedom comes with strict limitation.

Madison Dickman, the founder of Food Not Bombs in Southwest Florida, expressed her frustration with the powerful limitation.

“My friends in Orlando got arrested for participating in Food Not Bombs,” Dickman said. “For serving food to the homeless.”

There are videos online of people serving food to children as the police begin to handcuff their hands behind their back.

“You see these children being served food and it being taken away,” she said. “They want to keep a blind eye to the homeless and to poverty.”

Dickman brought the movement to Fort Myers to start a social change and a movement. Her biggest goal is to change the way people think and begin influencing their actions onto the community. Dickman wants to influence how people view life as opposed to what the government tells them.

“Food is not a privilege, it’s a right,” Dickman said. “Some people put themselves in homeless situations but others have grown up without having any choices,” she said.

The Lee County Homeless Coalition documented that of 1,054 homeless persons, 59 percent reported having a disabling conditions. Some of these conditions could prevent people from obtaining jobs.

“It’s a shame that someone would have to life like that,” Dickman said. She strong encourages the community to outreach to those in need. These acts can fully change the face of the homeless, even independently.

“Food Not Bombs is not a charity, we’re just a bunch of people in the community that get together,” she said. “We don’t receive any government funding. We just take this out of our fiends and community.”

Food Not Bombs always values leftover food that can be put to use. They continue to explore creating a society based on human rights and human needs.

Volunteers seek out an underground world and make it visible to people with power to change the situation.

The movement forces the hidden homeless faces into the public eye; they give names to the homeless in Centennial Park as they fill empty plates and execute hunger pains.

Posted in: Brittany Cagle