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NAPLES — Wendi Horne-Orr has lived in at least four places in as many years.
Around 2010, the place she called home was the St. Matthew’s House shelter. She later moved from addresses in Estero and Bonita Springs to a recent residence at the Friendship House shelter in Immokalee. On Wednesday, she was found living in a storage unit in East Naples with a 2-year-old boy.
Horne-Orr, who was subsequently jailed on a child neglect charge, told a judge Thursday she had been on a seven-week waiting list for a family room at St. Matthew’s House. She said she left the Friendship House less than a week ago because of problems with the staff and an expectation she’d be receiving a tax return that would help pay for a place to stay.
"Obviously that didn’t happen the way I thought it was going to happen," she said during a bond hearing.
The discovery of Horne-Orr and the boy inside the storage unit was a rare encounter, officials with both code enforcement and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday. But homeless advocates say there are likely plenty of families living in storage units or similar structures across the county, out of plain sight.
A spokeswoman said the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t keep track of how many people they’ve dealt with who were living in storage facilities, saying it’s more of a code enforcement issue. Supervisor Jeff Letourneau said in his 14 years with code enforcement, he’s never dealt with anyone living in a storage unit against county code.
"I don’t recall a case like this," Letourneau said.
Vann Ellison, CEO and president of St. Matthew’s House, said homelessness is often an invisible problem in Naples but no less prevalent.
"Here in Collier County, there are more than a few people who will be living in storage units, camping in the woods, living in cars and trying to find parking lots to hide in," he said. "Every time I speak publicly to groups, people always say, ‘Oh, I had no idea that there were poor people or homelessness in our community.’"
Reports say the unit where Horne-Orr and the boy were living contained a microwave, a futon, a fan and a TV behind a dresser in the unit. They also found flies and gnats swarming around a bucket apparently being used as a toilet.
Paramedics found Horne-Orr passed out in the back of the unit next to two empty bottles of vodka and an ashtray filled with cigarette butts, according to the reports.
Horne-Orr was arrested, and the boy, who was described as hungry and dehydrated but in good spirits, was taken into the custody of the Department of Children and Families.
Garrett Reese, who works at an electronic cigarette and supply store at the front of the storage facility, said Wednesday was the first time he’d heard of people living in a unit at that Cube Smart location. He called it an "isolated incident" in an otherwise quiet place.
Still, it’s not surprising, he said.
"Probably all around the world people could be staying in storage units," Reese said. "I guess if you’re homeless, you have no place better to go."
A 2013 count of the homeless in Collier County showed there were 396 homeless adults and 1,054 students in the public schools who are considered homeless, according to the Collier County Hunger & Homeless Coalition. Results for the most recent count held last month won’t be tabulated until April.
The groups of people most at risk for homelessness, Ellison said, are single mothers.
"The main cause of homelessness is that they’re alone, their family won’t help, they’re out of money," he said.
In the past few years, Ellison said he has heard more cases of people found living in storage units or abandoned homes and businesses. The only difference, he said, between a community like Naples and a more urban area is that the homeless here know they are easily spotted.
"In a community like this, a homeless person will stand out and be noticed so they work to be invisible," he said. "In the large cities up north that’s not the case. They don’t care who notices and police are too busy with other issues to challenge or notice them."
Staff writer Maryann Batlle contributed to this report.