Are Our Cities Prepared to Handle a Spike in Homeless Families?

by Gregory Warren Rolle,
Community Education Coordinator for the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless

It's an all too familiar story now.

A family of four—two children, two working parents—on the poor side. Renters, who have never owned a home, making ends meet through smoke and mirrors. They faithfully pay their rent, while their children go without promising themselves and their family that someday their lives will improve.

Their landlord is undergoing his own ordeal.

When the market was booming, he "flipped" houses and rented them for reasonable and sometimes unreasonable rates. The market changes, and suddenly he finds himself thousands of dollars in debt. Gradually, he can no longer pay the mortgage. He collects the rent money and keeps it and his troubles to himself. The banks begin to gather like distant cousins at the reading of a will.

The family, unknowingly, drudges through their lives. When the sheriff knocks on the door with an eviction notice, our family is confused. They show their rent receipts, illustrating that they are towing the line.

“Three days,” the sheriff shrugs. “Three days to get out.”

Karen Bolden, executive director of ASAP Homeless Services in St. Petersburg, Florida, knows this story well. ASAP operates a Drop-in-Center that affords homeless people the opportunity to eat breakfast, shower, get fresh, clean clothes, and receive their mail. ASAP also provides emergency shelter for women and children.

"At one time," Bolden recalled, "They were the only people who were coming here.”

"They've moved on now," she said. "When this crisis first started, I heard that story all of the time.”

Where are they now?

"We had a typical family—mom, dad and a couple of kids—a week or two ago," explained Richard Linkiewicz, a St Petersburg Police officer who works as a homeless street outreach officer.

"We put them in a hotel for a few days until we can connect them with some social service agencies. We don't keep track of them after that."

Homeless street outreach teams are comprised of a police officer and a social worker. Their typical duties include connecting homeless people on the street with services, such as shelters, rehabs, mental health services, and free bus tickets to reconnect with family out-of-state.

One important service that the teams suddenly find themselves engaged in is finding shelter for homeless families. Officer Steve Vangeli, half of Pinellas Park's street outreach team, agrees that there is a direct correlation between the economic climate and the surge in the number of homeless families.

"We've found them sleeping in cars, and they call me from time to time. We generally take them to the Homeless Emergency Project or the Grace House in Clearwater. We lose touch with them after that.”

Jim and Jeanie were not fortunate enough to connect with compassionate outreach workers. Jim brought his family from Michigan on the promise of a job in St. Petersburg. Along with Jeanie, who is now six months pregnant, the family includes two daughters, aged 14 and 16. Things did not workout and fell apart rather quickly. The family fended off disaster for a time with their merger savings, but found themselves sleeping under an overpass. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department took the couple’s children due to their living conditions and cited them as abusive parents. They are allowed to see their children only for one hour a month, under strict supervision.

With the help of a local church, Jim found employment, which he says is fine since the boss took a liking to him and increased his hours from part time to almost full-time. Jeanie was able to start getting unemployment benefits from a job she had been laid off from in Michigan.

"We're kind of lucky," Jim said. "Crappy luck, but we'll take it.”

Jeanie, pregnant and moody, is not inclined to agree. She doesn't say much, and her mistrustful eyes are often glazed and misty.

"All I want is my children back," she says.

They live in a hotel now. Most homeless families lucky enough to find employment live in flea bag hotels, usually for $180-200 a week—a little more than what it costs to rent the average 2-bedroom apartment in this area. If it rains and they find themselves out of work for a couple of days, they'll sleep in their cars until they are able to make ends meet again.

Are St. Petersburg and Pinellas County prepared to meet the challenges of the spike of homeless families? Logic says no.

While the figures from this January’s point-in-time homeless count are not yet available, the 2008 count revealed that on any given day 5,195 men, women and children are homeless in Pinellas County. The biggest increase was in the number of homeless women. According to the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, which conducts the count each year, early indications from the 2009 homeless count show there will be a sharp increase in the number of homeless children and families.

Only 60 percent of all homeless people in the county are sheltered at any given time. Many sleep in wooded areas and cars. At least 100 people camp on the sidewalk in front of St. Petersburg's City Hall, and an additional 100 sleep on 15th Avenue in Methodist Town, the site of the original tent city.

Part of the problem in dealing with people experiencing homelessness is the attitude of the City Council and the mayor, who share a vision of St. Petersburg as a Mecca for tourism and upscale development. Although the enactment of draconian ordinances—such as limiting the amount of property homeless can carry, and establishing zones where panhandling is met with arrest—were meant to drive street homeless from the city, the effects have proven to be far reaching. People who have been evicted now see their property being disposed of under the "one bag and three blankets" ordinance. Families who park their cars on certain streets are being told to move on because they are violating an ordinance that says no lying and reclining.

Even the much ballyhooed Pinellas Hope, the sanctioned “tent city,” which the City uses to replace the now outlawed and razed original tent city on 15th Street in St. Pete, reveals the flaws in the City's method of homelessness prevention and cessation. Pinellas Hope has a capacity for 300 tents. According to Sheila Lopez, Catholic Charities’ Chief Operating Officer and Director of Operations at Pinellas Hope, there is a waiting list of 144 people. Pinellas Hope does not accommodate families with children, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, nor does it have a place for disabled or the mentally challenged, which make up 30 percent of the homeless population. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in violent attacks against street homeless in St. Petersburg – nine attacks reported this month alone, in a state that has the highest rate of violence against homeless persons in the nation.

As we watch this crisis grow, we are left to answer tough questions about our compassion as a society and the new underclass which is developing before our eyes. Cities must develop new strategies for dealing with old problems. If we manage to solve the problems of the stereotypical street homeless and find shelter for them and shelter for our prejudice against them, we will at the same time develop safeguards for the working poor and the emerging homeless population of children.

George Bolden of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, contributed to the research of this article.

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