PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Education leaders in the Tampa Bay area say more families are facing homelessness as the COVID-19 pandemic, rising cost of living and inflation push many to move in with relatives, stay in hotels, or live out of their cars.
The Pinellas County School (PCS) district homeless liaison said calls from families facing homelessness have gone up 3,000% in the last year.
“We used to get one to two calls a month of families that are about to be homeless or who were absolutely street homeless. We're getting one to two, and sometimes three a day,” explained Christine Cantrell with the PCS HEAT Program.
She added that these are the families that will admit to struggling with a place to live, often something parents are scared to share with a school district.
Under the national McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, children and youth “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” are protected under certain rights to get an education and will not be taken from their parents unless there is proven abuse or neglect.
Pinellas County students under this act have steadily increased over the last decade. Last year they identified 3,331 students. So far this year, they have identified 4,118.
Polk County schools are in the same situation, this is the first year they expect to have more than 4,000 students without a home, aside from the influx of Hurricane Irma refugees they received a number of years ago.
Pinellas students identified as living in hotels and motels also more than doubled in the last year from 7% to 16%, but as spring and summer approach, even hotels are getting too expensive.
“We want to make sure that students who are in these situations get that education because moving out of poverty takes education,” Cantrell said.
PCS works with several community organizations to connect families to housing, but they say there are too many and not enough help.
“We've had to, over the last few months, direct people to Walmart parking lots because there is just no housing available. The shelters are constantly full, and Walmart's are safe,” explained Cantrell.
“A lot of families that were able to make it paycheck to paycheck prior to the pandemic, they're just having a much more difficult time now because of increasing housing costs and increased prices with groceries and gas,” explained Ashley Lowery, President & CEO of the Homeless Empowerment Program in Pinellas County which helps families get into housing as well as with rent.
Directions for Living is another organization working to help families.
“We have 75 families right now that we know about with little dependent children that are living on the streets of Pinellas County,” said April Lott, President & CEO of Directions For Living. “We are seeing a trend line of about 10 additional families a week being added to that list. I would argue that the number is actually two to three times that number.”
Shelters are constantly full, especially those with family beds, and Lott said they’re running out of funds to help.
“In December we had 58 families in hotels,” she said. “Now because the funding sources are exhausted, I think we have six, seven, eight maybe families in hotels right now and another 75 that we know of on the streets.”
PCS is also concerned about student refugees they’ve enrolled from Afghanistan and they expect more to come in from Ukraine.
Cantrell said the district now has four full-time staff dedicated to their homeless program and a trained educator or social worker in every school.
“We all need to help solve this problem. We need our government and our policymakers and our elected officials to take policy action around affordable housing,” Lott said. “We certainly need financial assistance to get families off the streets.”
They’re also asking landlords to work with them by accepting pandemic-related evictions and housing assistance vouchers.
“There is hope, we do see a lot of families able to climb out of it and to get into housing and move themselves forward. But it takes a village,” Cantrell said.
Lowery stressed that anyone with a concern can call the Homeless Empowerment Program (HEP).
“At worst, we can just screen them and see if they qualify for any of the programs that we have. And you know if they do that's great, we'll be able to help them and if not, then we may be able to refer them to other programs that they do qualify for,” she said.
A good place to start with help with resources no matter where you are located is dialing 211.
You can also visit the Shelter Listings website and search for your city to find assistance organizations and shelters.
If you'd like to help these organizations, you donate goods or money. You can also donate school supplies, hygiene products or nonperishable food to your local schools.
RESOURCES IN PINELLAS COUNTY INCLUDE:
Homeless Emergency Program (HEP)
1120 North Betty Lane
Clearwater, Florida 33755
Directions For Living
1437 South Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL - 33764
St. Vincent de Paul Center of Hope
401 15th Street North
Saint Petersburg, FL 33705
Telephone: (727) 896-3300
CASA, Gateway Transitional Housing
Mailing address - P.O. Box 414
Saint Petersburg, FL 33731
Dial the agency at (727) 895-4912
Touched By An Angel Ministries
Address: 3491 62nd Ave N #6
Pinellas Park, FL 33781
Call (727) 527-7770
Salvation Army St. Petersburg
Main address: 1400 4th Street South
Saint Petersburg, Florida 33701
Telephone: (727) 822-4954
5726 126th Avenue N.
Clearwater, FL 33762
Telephone - (727) 893-1314
Boley Centers and the Jerry Howe Transitional Apartments
Main address is 1447 Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard
Clearwater, Florida 33755
Main phone - (727) 686-7490
SHELTERS FOR THE HOMELESS ACROSS TAMPA BAY:
- DeSoto Cares Homeless Services: A service center for showers, laundry, personal care items, mailboxes, phone and internet access and referral services all staffed by volunteers and is open three days weekly.
- Arcadia Housing Authority
- DART: Provides transportation
- CareerSource Heartland in Arcadia
- Homeless & Community Services works in collaboration with the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI) and the Continuum of Care to provide resources to individuals and families experiencing homelessness leading them to self-sufficiency.
- Click here to access services or find a shelter.
- Currently has two homeless shelters
- One has 24 beds; 12 for women and 12 for men. The other shelter is for single women or single women with minors only.
- Two domestic violence shelters are located in Pasco County. Information on those shelters is very restrictive.
- Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County
- Currently has one homeless shelter: The Refuge at Jumper Creek Inc.
- CareerSource Central Florida can assist with a job search, and Sumter County offers a transit service to help with transportation if they are a Sumter resident
- Hope Haven located at Safari Inn helps house the homeless
- Contact: Leslie Behm - 863-385-7649
- Six homeless shelters
- Click here for more resources.