Some of Hillsborough's 2,225 homeless receive assistance at annual veterans outreach event
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06/07/13 Janelle Irwin
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Volunteers from all over the state joined forces today to help struggling Hillsborough County residents get off the streets. As many as 400 homeless veterans and civilians had access to services from more than 30 agencies during an annual outreach event in Tampa today.

Edi Erb is the development manager for the Hillsborough Homeless Coalition. Erb was one of the lead organizers of the annual Stand Down and Health Fair at the Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

“This is our annual Stand Down and Stand Down is a military term for coming back, basically, off of the front lines and regrouping and getting some relaxation and some food and getting all your new supplies. So, that’s what we’re doing here and when interpret that for homelessness it’s connecting to those resources that can help them.”

The most recent homeless count – and a recount this year found more than 2,000 people living on the streets of Hillsborough County. That number was down from two years ago, but still represents a huge problem. Erb said those individuals are also misunderstood – being accused of wanting to be homeless.

“Right now our system is broken – we’re trying to fix it – and sometimes people have to go to a lot of different places. Sometimes somebody has to go to five different interviews at five different locations just to try to get help because they go and that didn’t work and they send them somewhere else and they go somewhere else. Where here they do that, but they only have to step over one table. So, they don’t have to go across town. So, the success is by bringing people together we can do that. You can only imagine, if you had to go to five different places to try to get something you needed, you might not even do that.”

More than 300 struggling residents attended last year’s Stand Down and got help ranging from a hot meal and a shower to health access. Erb said she planned for an even bigger turnout this year.

“The Supportive Services for Veteran’s Families program, Veteran’s Homelessness prevention demonstration program, we have the public defender’s office here, Bay Area Legal Services is here – we have a number of healthcare providers. We have the Hillsborough County Healthcare Plan, outside we have the VA mobile medical van, we have Tampa Family Health Centers van. We also have the Department of Motor Vehicles here to help with IDs that people need.”

Veterans could be connected to individually tailored assistance programs including disability services. Robert Foster is a healthcare technician for the Tampa Veteran’s Administration mobile outreach unit. He said vets can get health screenings and flu shots, but more importantly they can apply for continued health coverage.

“They can include total healthcare. In other words, everything from stubbed toes to heart attacks. They can get day to day healthcare or hospitalization as needed and vision, hearing. Some veterans are eligible for dental care and we also do Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Although the Stand Down was organized in the spirit of military service, only about a third of people who attend are veterans or active military. Civilians also have access to hygiene kits, housing services and even haircuts. The whole event is complex and requires the help of scores of volunteers. Darren Steptoe is an AmeriCorps Vista member that provided many of the hands on deck.

“We have a lot of organizations here that can help get them to self sufficiency and hopefully, off the streets.

And some of the volunteers were people barely staving off homelessness themselves. Michelle Rouadi is on the road back to her normal life, after the company she worked for collapsed. Rouadi now works for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office as a crossing guard and is living in transitional housing.

“Where, you must abide by certain classes – you have to go do certain classes, you have to make sure you’re on time, you do your chores, you do things like that. But you’re also putting yourself out in the community to be able to help other people – help those with children, be able to help those who don’t have children, be able to provide your time to teach them how to do leadership, culinary and management skills and that’s what I was doing for the last year, being able to help with that. So, it’s amazing.”

But not everyone at the outreach got what they came for. Michael Wadas came to Florida after losing his own business in New York. After stops in cities across the state including parts of South Florida and Key West, Wadas landed in Tampa.

“I went to the food stamp office, the computers were down. I went to the birth force, I need my ID. I went to the ID place, I need by birth certificate. I went to Access to get a phone, he’s too busy so I’m going to have to go back. The only thing I got out of it was two cups of coffee. And then I went to the health booth to see if I could get stitches out of my head – can’t do that.”

Agencies also offered clothing to individuals trying to find employment as well as employment assistance. Coordinators said the best way to combat homelessness is to give those who are at risk the tools to care for themselves. For immediate help, people can call 211 to speak with an outreach councilor.

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