FORT MEYERS, Fla. — John Johnson put down his tools to rest on the back stoop of a house in the re-making, taking in the view of banana fronds brushed with gold afternoon light.

With a few other homeless men, the landscaper who specializes in tree work has been helping nonprofit St Martin de Porres rescue the building in a rural corner of Fort Myers for the past seven months; a building he believes others need more than he does.

“There are too many out there that need help,” Johnson said of single mothers, the invisible yet fastest growing members of the homeless population. “They have kids and do whatever they can to provide for them. Many of them are out there on the boulevard prostituting themselves just to survive.”

The boulevard Johnson refers to is Palm Beach Boulevard, where Fernando Castillo and his family operate the St Martin de Porres soup kitchen; feeding the hungry in one of Lee County’s poorest zip codes. Most of the diners at the cafe are homeless.

One of Castillo’s kitchen’s volunteers – all of the St. Martin de Porres staff including Castillo are unpaid – donated the house for the nonprofit’s use.

Invisible women

While it’s no secret families are the fastest-growing segment of this population, little is made of the fact that in 90 percent of cases, the head of the family is a woman alone.

“If you are a man, or a victim of domestic violence, you have more possibilities to get a room,” said Castillo, whose soup kitchen doubles as a hub for connecting diners with services, including housing.

More often than not, the St. Martin de Porres staff find themselves on a merry-go-round of referrals to one agency after another, their beds full and waiting lists long.

That’s why Castillo decided to dedicate the house to serving women. The nine rooms will be given to four mothers and their children, and a retired Catholic sister who will serve as their live-in supervisor.

“You are talking about mothers who can’t afford rent because they lost a job or just aren’t making enough money,” he said. “Women alone are the majority. And nobody talks about it.”

The mainstay for homeless Lee County women is a 52-bed shelter run by Salvation Army, Red Shield Lodge. There women can stay for up to three months as they work a program to improve their employment prospects and, hopefully, afford housing on their own.

“Unfortunately, the 52 beds aren’t enough.” Director of Program Services Shannon Cherizier, said. “Forty to 100 families are typically on the wait list. The majority by far are single moms.”

Single-mother families can also apply for a federal rapid re-housing program that helps them lease a house in the community for a year, in hopes they can increase their earnings or find more permanent housing through the fed’s Section 8 program.

Why are women homeless?

Although domestic violence contributes to nearly half of homeless cases, poverty puts more women on the street than any other factor, experts say.

Earning less than men, channeled into lower paying jobs and shouldering the lion’s share of unpaid caregiving, women have fewer resources to withstand a crisis such as a layoff, divorce or health problem. Over 30 percent of Florida’s female-headed households are poor by Census Bureau measures, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

“I’m a single mom. I know if I didn’t have the job I have, I would be right there with them,” Cherizier, said. “Daycare is so expensive, and the way our housing is now, how does she afford it all?”

Since a 2016 News-Press report on Southwest Florida’s workforce housing crisis, communities have made little progress adding either better paying jobs or more affordable rooftops.

Waiting lists for federally funded housing last two years or longer in Lee County and run to thousands of people.

“I’m a single mom. I know if I didn’t have the job I have, I would be right there with them.”

Shannon Cherizier, Salvation Army

The world’s largest privately funded nonprofit, The United Way, generously gave $332,200 in 2017 to ACT, a nonprofit dedicated to sexual abuse and domestic violence that offers a residency program; and a similar amount to the Salvation Army.

But the majority of United Way’s $6 million kitty went to non-housing services.

“Most people nowadays don’t have the $1,500 to $3,000 down payment landlords are charging to get into a place,” said Johnson, who has stayed off and on in motels that charge a weekly rate; the last stop before homelessness.

Although he sorely needs housing that fits his $300 a week pay, “I’d rather sleep outside than take from them,” he said of the mothers and children. “As a guy who needs a roof, I’m in a better position to survive.”

What can we do about it?

It would take just 100 rooms to give Lee County’s women-headed families a safe place to sleep, based on the 2017 annual homeless Census conducted by the Lee County Homeless Coalition.

When the St. Martin de Porres house is finished, make that 92 rooms.

Asked how we can fill the need, Castillo, a devout Catholic, said, “With God’s help, more housing can be created.”

And besides God’s help?

“With people,” he laughed. “Sometimes you have a house you’re not using. Give us a chance to utilize the house for a couple of years.”

Castillo, a 30-year veteran of the contracting trade, offers to renovate the house in exchange for letting his homeless clients get stabilized and back on their feet.

He and helpers like Johnson will return the building in two years’ time fully renovated, he says.

When they started on their current project, “The house was terrible,” said Castillo. “It consisted of a trailer at the center with two wings on either side. We covered the walls with plywood and cement to piece it together.”

With a sunny yellow exterior, it looks like a home now. When it opens, women will be able to stay there for free while getting their lives back on track.

Working sometimes fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, Castillo explained his approach:

“I believe if you have 10 houses and they are not enough, you have to go out and look not for more money, but for more houses.”

Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press,