The last 10 days or so have been a trying time for our community. We lost a beloved Island icon when Beach Library Director Dr. Leroy Hommerding was killed on Sunday, January 20th while opening the library doors for a weekend Book Sale. It’s still hard to wrap your head around that, isn’t it? A librarian was murdered for doing his job. In a library. In our town.
It’s so wrong and surprising and appalling and inconceivable, of course we’re all stunned. We’ve become all those people interviewed after a tragedy, “We didn’t think it could happen in our town.” But it did.
The man accused of his murder told deputies that he had been planning to kill Dr. Hommerding for a while because he had “disrespected” him. He then told deputies that he’d also attacked another man about 10 days before for the same reason, he was “disrespected.” In Dr. Hommerding’s case, that “disrespect” seemed to be related to the standards of conduct expected of everyone using the library. Whether you live in a mansion, a trailer, a tent or under a tree, if you use the Beach Library, you are expected to treat the library, staff and other patrons with consideration. If you use any public place, you are expected to treat others with the respect you’d like to receive.
Since Dr. H’s murder, our community has been buzzing with conversation about the homeless because the man who confessed to killing Dr. H is homeless. It would seem that he’s also battling mental illness, though the courts will need to parse that definition and the accused’s mental state. But what would our community conversation have been this week had the man lived in an apartment instead of being homeless? We hope we’d be focusing on the real problem, mental illness and our nation’s lack of attention to it.
While a tragic death is bad enough, adding the homeless label to the confessed murderer makes it even worse. And it has opened the floodgates of homeless stories on our island.
Many of our residents and visitors have had problems with a homeless person at some time. We don’t doubt them. Lee County and Fort Myers Beach have a significant homeless population. Our year-round nice weather is attractive to anyone who is unable to be under cover every night, a luxury that most of us don’t appreciate. The reasons for their lack of a permanent home are many and vary from one person to the next. And, like the man who has turned our community upside down with his actions, surely mental illness plays a role in some cases.
Communities can provide food and shelter, but until mental health is addressed and treatment options exist, we’re just spinning our wheels. Our culture still refuses to recognize mental illness as being as valid as physical illness. Many health plans limit care. The stigma of mental illness is a huge barrier to seeking treatment. So long as that is true, how can we expect those who suffer from mental illness to seek care and learn to manage it?
Want the cops to go from bridge to bridge, rousting all the homeless off our island? Will that “fix” our homeless problem? Will that truly eliminate every bad actor on the Island? Probably not.
And what would you do about the homeless once they’re off the island? Where would they go? To another community for awhile maybe. Or is that not our concern?
Right now, many in our community are understandably angry about Dr. H’s murder. But let’s remember that Dr. H himself worked to serve the homeless and poor in our community. He recognized that they needed someplace to go and something to do and the library was one of the logical places to hang out. He even worked with those who struggled to follow the rules.
We are a caring community. We support benefits for our neighbors who are hurting. We attend fundraisers for a dozen community groups, knowing that those funds will go to worthy programs in our community. We can’t turn our backs on that tradition now.
Wouldn’t it be an amazing tribute to Dr. H if, as a community, we found a way to keep our island community safe while we helped the homeless?
We’re faced with a complex problem. Let’s not go for the easy, but incomplete, solution just because it might feel good now as a reaction to Dr. H’s death. Let’s focus on finding a solution that is worthy of our community. One that acknowledges the needs of our residents, our visitors and the homeless.
We have a program on Fort Myers Beach that provides homeless services. That program, God’s Table, involves volunteers and churches from the entire community, not just the host of the program, Chapel by the Sea. The program is not something “others” have forced on us; it is “our” program created to serve a segment of our community – our program that serves the poor and homeless, underemployed and unemployed on our island.
This ecumenical effort is simply following the exhortations found in the Bible to care for the poor, the least of us.
I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:40
Instead of condemning the work our churches are trying to do, let’s work with them to find solutions that will both help the homeless and keep our community safe. We can do this.
It will take all of us, our Lee County Sheriff’s Office, our community organizations,
God’s Table and our community’s well-known “heart” but we can do this.