Homeless awareness campaign kicks off

09/27/07 Seán Kinane
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The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County unveiled a new awareness campaign today. It highlights the fact that virtually anyone can become homeless.

Dozens of paper grocery bags with the faces of Hillsborough County residents who are or formerly were homeless were set up on the steps of the Old Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa while advocates for the homeless and some of those pictured on the bags spoke to the public.

Rayme Nuckles, the CEO of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, talked about the campaign which is entitled "Unexpected Faces, Unexpected Faces."

"It’s a public awareness campaign to communicate to the public about homeless faces who are our homeless neighbors in Hillsborough County," Nuckles said. "The paper bags represent the fact that individuals, when they do become homeless, some of them that’s all they carry around is a paper bag with the items that they may have, that are their personal possessions in a paper bag. Some are in backpacks.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe addressed the crowd of about 50 about the county’s homeless problems. He said the county tries to help through its indigent health plan, by having an affordable housing coordinator and by providing jobs.

“We’ve got over 11,000 people in this community, in this county, who really didn’t do anything to deserve the situation that they’re in. They found themselves often times without a roof over their head. They find themselves without a job or an opportunity. And many of them, 16 percent of them are children. And those children in particular, we’ve got to think about and be mindful of every day.”

Shawn Watson and his family are homeless. He, his wife Laura, and his two sons are pictured on some of the bags.

“It can happen to anybody in the world, you, I, anybody standing here. One bad decision can knock the wind out of your sails and down you go," Watson said.

He said he's been tryong to get back on his feet. "I’ve been going at it for a year and a half and still it’s just as bad as it was the day we moved into the tent. It’s hard.”

Susan Sharpe currently advocates for the homeless, including lobbying in Tallahassee.

“I was raised in a middle-class family, military veteran and I went to school for accounting, became an accounting professional. In my early forties, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and at that point in time, I was bedridden. Therefore I lost my job. I went through my stocks and my bonds, my savings account and I became homeless. I was living in my car for some time until my car got repossessed.”

Sharpe, who is pictured on one of the bags, said homelessness can happen to anyone.

“Anyone can get sick at any point in time. I had no idea I had MS, no idea at all. Cancer, any kind of illness at all can completely wipe you off your feet and you can become homeless. It’s not just you don’t want to work. Because I always worked, I worked all my life from the age of 15. So that definitely wasn’t it and it wasn’t for lack of trying. But anything can happen, you could have a car accident and not be able to work. So it’s really something that everybody needs to be concerned about because it could be you at some point in time in your life that’s the one that’s needing help.”

Watson said that one way people can help the homeless is to not be judgmental.

“The main thing is, don’t judge people. People are guilty of that. I am myself, I’m sure you are. Don’t judge the book by its cover. Just because I’m standing here with my hat backwards, my hair long and my Buccaneers shirt doesn’t mean I’m a bad person and have my head screwed on backwards. I’m very hard working, anybody comes in contact with you will tell you that. I leave here today I’m going to buff an RV, a great big RV.”

Sharpe suggested some of the ways that people could help the homeless.

“Food stamps doesn’t buy toilet paper, food stamps doesn’t buy aspirin, food stamps doesn’t buy a blanket. Donating to different organizations (does help) - it doesn’t have to be cash. It could be anything. When you’re out at the store, pick up an extra tube of toothpaste, grab an extra bar of soap, take it down to one of the local agencies because it really means something.”

Nuckles of the Homeless Coalition said that the campaign was in response to a set of 17 recommendations from a 2005 Task Force Report. One of the recommendations was that there be a public awareness campaign about homelessness.

“The campaign itself will be unraveling all throughout the next year with billboard, print ads, TV, PSAs, and we hope to expand that to a number of other areas, possibly having supermarkets with the bags at the stores.”

Learn more:

Unexpected Faces, Unexpected Places

Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County

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