ST PETERSBURG, Fla. — A new food kitchen in South St. Petersburg is hoping to help feed the record number of families experiencing homelessness in Pinellas County.
The Pinellas County School district ended last school year with nearly 5,000 homeless students, and officials said they're already seeing record numbers again this year, largely due to the pandemic coupled with the rising cost of living in Tampa Bay.
Pastor Deborah Hill of New Hope Of Glory Ministries in St. Pete had a vision to make sure no child in her city went to bed hungry.
“My mother was a single parent, and she raised six children by herself, on $80 a week. She then took that food, the little food that we had, and she was shared with people in the community,” Hill told ABC Action News.
This month, she is opening the doors to the Bridge of Hope Kitchen off 62nd Ave. South, for children and families experiencing homelessness to get a hot dinner and have access to a computer for homework.
When we talked with the Pinellas County Schools homeless liaison Christine Cantrell last March, she said they were seeing a 3,000% increase in calls from families facing homelessness.
“We're seeing an increase in our car, students living in their cars and having to go to Walmart parking lots and whatnot — safe places — because they just don't have any other place to go."
Cantrell said resources in the county are tapped out, the shelters are full, and more and more children are ending up on what they call their priority list for housing.
“We are seeing a definite increase in families that are losing their housing due to being priced out of their lease,” Cantrell explained. “Families that are having to remain in their vehicles. A lot of them are trying to move back in which families and friends temporarily our hotels' percentage, we're seeing an increase in that.”
The district starts the school year with a questionnaire where parents can self-identify as homeless. Cantrell said it was even more important this year for students to qualify for free lunch since the national program ended.
As of September 1, the district identified 1,520 students experiencing homelessness. That’s up 17% from one year prior at 1,299.
But as families move around and staff identifies more students throughout the year, Cantrell said that number grows exponentially.
She explained that in 2021, numbers dipped because enrollment overall dropped due to online learning during the pandemic, but for the last 15 years, it’s only increased.
Last school year ended at 4,674 identified students without a permanent home, more than ever before.
“All the shelters are full, and all the social service agencies that we partner with are doing a fabulous job of trying to get through that prioritization list, but the need is far greater than the services that are available out there,” she said.
The district relies on partnerships with nonprofits like the Bridge of Hope Kitchen to make sure parents can feed their children, something that is also very personal to community leaders like Tampa Bay’s Florida Senator Daryl Rouson.
“I was homeless at one point with a 4-year-old son and worried about whether or not we would eat that evening,” Rouson told ABC Action News. “We know that we live in a food desert, food insecurities have been highlighted because of the pandemic, so to provide nutrition that will help in the learning is just awesome.”
He was one of the dozens who turned up to applaud the grand opening of the Bridge of Hope Kitchen this summer.
“As long as there’s breath in the body, there’s hope,” Hill told the crowd at the grand opening.
“Children should not have to wonder where they're going to eat…When there's so many of us, that can help make a difference,” Hill said.
The kitchen will officially open to the public on September 27. It will be open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5-7p.m.
They are still recruiting volunteers for the kitchen and tutoring, as well as accepting donations.
To get involved, visit their website here.