Pinellas grapples with how to fix homelessness among children

12/12/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Juvenile Welfare Board, Pinellas County, Pinellas County Schools, homeless, poverty


The Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board is located in the ICOT Center off Ulmerton; board members there want to address homelessness among children.

photo by Janelle Irwin

More than 3,000 kids in Pinellas County are listed as homeless. A group of government and non-government agencies met Thursday during a Juvenile Welfare Board meeting in Largo to combine resources in hopes of minimizing what is becoming an epidemic among struggling families. And Sarah Snyder, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, says that staggering number likely only represents elementary students.

“What we don’t know and have no real picture of is how many high school kids and how many middle school kids are in this same kind of a situation and that’s where we lose them. We lose them once they get into that age group, they tend to leave home, they tend to run away, whatever it is and they’re extremely difficult to reach once they’re on the street.”

But families who are homeless do have options – especially in Pinellas where the Homeless Leadership Board says homeless services are considered among the best in the nation. Families seeking services from St. Vincent De Paul can transition to a permanent place to live in as few as 23 days. And once families have that stability, they can continue to get meals from the charity to cut back on living expenses. But Snyder says it’s the chronically homeless who have the most difficulties.

“These are families that have been homeless for at least a year or four times out of the last three years and have a disability which could be mental health, substance abuse, whatever.”

She says many individuals and some families in that situation don’t have the motivation or skills to get back on their feet. And even those who do are afraid to ask for help.

“If the police find them or if a child protective services worker finds them or anybody else reports them, than they will lose their kids or they will be arrested or something awful will happen to them. So, they will do anything they can to hide. They really don’t want people to know that they’re homeless.”

But separating families is something of a last resort for groups like Snyder’s. Instead, they work to find homeless families and make sure they’re given the help they need to get out of the system. The group will conduct its HUD-mandated homeless count next month and will have an opportunity to reach some individuals. But getting to as many people as possible is where collaboration comes in.

“Because when you’ve got a family that’s been on the street or been precariously housed for multiple years, you’re talking about substantial problems both for the adults and for the children. So, we see a lot of their children needing mental health [services], they’re behind in school, they need tutoring. It’s just much more difficult to get them stable again.”

Sitting at the table together were members of the Juvenile Welfare Board, the Pinellas County Sheriff, Pinellas County Commissioners, a public defender and some members of the School Board. Carol Cook chairs that board. She says the unified conversation allows agencies to combine powers.

“We’re able to meet the needs of the families more efficiently. We’re not duplicating efforts as much. We’re looking at, where are the cracks in the systems that are out there and how can we better serve all of our public in Pinellas County?”

Officials with the school district are doing a lot for impoverished students. For the second year, every public school offers free breakfast to students. Some schools that meet certain benchmark for poverty levels offer universal free lunch even to students whose parents don’t meet the minimum income requirements and still other schools offer dinner to students. Those programs are funded through federal grants. Cook says now there are even groups who partner with the district for a program called Pack-a-Sack.

“It’s food that is packed and given to our elementary school high-poverty students that take it home so that they’re able to eat over the weekend. They have food that will get them through Saturday and Sunday.”

That all means kids don’t have to go hungry, but it doesn’t solve many students’ living situations.

“It’s not just who’s living on the street. It’s not just who’s living in, some cases, storage units. It is as much those students that are couch surfing. That means living with one friend and then going to another friend and then another friend.”

Groups are also coming together to provide better health services to low-income individuals and families. The Health and Human Services Coordinating Council wants to add three school board members to its group that currently consists of three county commissioners, three Juvenile Welfare Board members and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The Art Institute of Tampa is also volunteering services to create a media campaign called "Who Knew" to show residents that homelessness can happen to anyone.

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