Homeless services join forces with early childhood education despite government shutdown

10/11/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Head Start, Metropolitan Ministries, Hillsborough County, homeless, government shutdown


Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries says combining services in one location will benefit families who are in transitional housing.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Homeless families in Tampa now have access to combined services at a West Tampa facility. Metropolitan Ministries which houses families in crisis and Head Start which provides early childhood education started serving families in August. During an official celebration of the newly built facilities opening Friday, Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries, says the facility can house more than 50 families now, but hopes that number will grow to nearly 100 in the coming years.

“Those 99 families represent close to 300 children that come out of a homeless situation through trauma and through pain and suffering and what we believe in is education is the model that leads to self sufficiency. Self sufficiency is what we’re all about. Families live here temporarily – 6-12 months – and while they’re here we try to pour as many resources to these families as we possibly can so they can move back into the community.”

Those services include childcare provided by Hillsborough County’s Head Start program. The collaboration allows families to provide crucial educational opportunities to children while also offering GED and job coaching programs for parents.

“And for many of the mothers, they would love to be able to do that, but whose going to be able to care for their children and sometimes in a family scenario, family units and community partners and friends and churches can care for your kids, but for a homeless family that’s in a transient lifestyle, whose going to wrap their arms around these children and protect them and educate them and let mom get a chance to get back on her feet. So, that childcare program, it is education, but it is that childcare that allows mom to get a break that she’s never had – for many of our moms, they’ve never had this experience and their kids have never been in an educational setting, ever.”

The Hillsborough County School Board estimates that as many as 4,000 school-aged children are in some kind of homeless situation. Marks says that could mean sleeping in a car or tent or moving from home to home on an almost daily basis.

“But then they see that your children, who have been in this kind of traumatic scenario – they don’t know where their food’s coming from, they don’t know if they’re going to be safe tonight. To be in a safe and secure environment now they’re in an environment where learning can happen.”

Head Start is one of many programs that receive federal funding that is now in limbo as the government is in its 11th day of a partial shutdown. According to a press release from Hillsborough County, the program will receive local funds to keep operations up and running. Marks says that promise came from county administrator Mike Merrill.

“Head Start is being impacted across the nation, but not in Hillsborough County. Mike Merrill has stepped up and said, we will not shut down our award winning Head Start program, we will continue to find a way to fund it.”

The Head Start program at Metropolitan Ministries on Florida Avenue is working in conjunction to provide care for children of all ages. Christine Long is the senior programs officer for Metropolitan Ministries. She says teens in unstable housing situations are at higher risk for dropping out of school so the organization works with community partners like the Patel Conservancy to keep them engaged.

“They’re musicians or their actors or they want to be on Glee. They have opportunities to take classes down there. We also have Patel coming up and offering services on site. But we also have our football players. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have helped sponsor some of our young men participating in a football league.”

She adds, there are different approaches for each individual child to make sure all of their unique needs are met.

“For the little ones, we’re focusing on trauma-informed care with all of our programming. A trauma is an aspect of homelessness that affects brain chemistry in young children and it is so important that we do early interventions to change that brain chemistry. The long-term effects of not doing that is very dramatic.”

There are many ways families in crisis can find help. The phone hotline, 211 offers comprehensive information for both individuals and families. Metropolitan Ministries also has an outreach center located at the new facility in West Tampa. Other services there include free or reduced cost clothing for adults looking for employment.

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