Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Half of Manatee County homeless are families:

Families account for almost half of the homeless population in Manatee County - and the number of households in trouble is on the rise, homeless advocates warn.

That includes the most vulnerable segment of the homeless population: women with very young children, said Adell Erozer, director of the Manatee Community Coalition on Homelessness.

The problem, Erozer said, is twofold:

Many parents - especially single moms with children - are afraid of stepping forward for help out of fear authorities will take away their children.

And many homeless families go unnoticed because of the federal government's ever-narrowing definition of homelessness.

In its annual homeless survey next month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will count only unsheltered people living in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, on the streets or sidewalks or people staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing for homeless people who were once on the street.

Manatee County has no shelter facilities for single women without children who are not in an abusive situation, and only very limited family shelter capacity at the Salvation Army.

"That means HUD will miss the families doubling up in motel rooms, or the homeless people in jail or in mental health facilities," said Erozer.

The count determines how much federal funding Manatee homeless agencies will receive.

And funding is all the more crucial, advocates warn, because the caseload is exploding. The data support their fear: The Salvation Army of Bradenton has seen a 30 percent increase over the last year in the number of people seeking help.

Most of those new clients are families - many headed by single women, new to the streets, said Ellen Potrikus, who screens applicants for emergency assistance.

From Jan. 1 though Nov. 30, 8,904 people sought help from the Salvation Army, compared to 6,849 for the same period the year before.

"These are families whose household incomes have not kept pace with living expenses," Potrikus said. "All it takes is a big expense or accident for them to fall behind."

Most of the families are about to be evicted, Potrikus said. Some face late charges and attorney fees that have put them thousands of dollars behind in housing costs.

A few years ago, most people seeking rental or utility assistance were paying an average of $500-per-month rent, according to Salvation Army records.

Today, the average rent of those seeking help in Manatee County is $800.

Potrikus lays the blame on a lack of affordable housing and rising rents. Some at-risk families are paying rents as high as $1,300 a month.

The Salvation Army helps at-risk and homeless families with rent, utility and mortgage assistance through a $100,000 Emergency Shelter Grant from the state, plus donations from supporters.

But with rising rents and utilities, the funds cover fewer people in need.

From Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, Potrikus and her staff helped 159 people with rental assistance. A year ago, 168 people received aid in the same period. In 2005, 206 people received help with utility bills; as of Nov. 30, only 168 have received utility aid.

"Higher bills and rents limit the number of people we can help," Potrikus said.

Although HUD does not count homeless children, local advocates make the attempt.

They try tracking through the Homeless Management Information System, a computerized record that HUD requires from local agencies receiving funds. The local agencies that filed in 2005 served more than 9,000 people - and 23 percent, or 2,070, were children.

And that count, Erozer warned, is a fraction of the real number. Homeless parents try to stay invisible for fear the state will take away their children, homeless advocates say.

Teen moms, who have been left on their own by the fathers of their children or their own parents, hide because they have no place to go.

The League of Women Voters and Anne Melton Family Resource Center are trying to remedy that situation by establishing a Second Chance Home for teen parents.

Deb Bailey, director of Project Heart, helps homeless students within the Manatee County School District.

Already this school year, Bailey's homeless student count has topped 1,200.

Erozer puts the actual figure much higher.

"We know from Project Heart figures that there were 2,860 students identified as homeless during the 2005-2006 school year," Erozer said. "But when you realize that these numbers are for just 10 months out of the year and don't include children too young to be in the school system, we could easily have more than 3,000 children a year who are homeless."

That number represents the population of nearly four elementary schools in Manatee County.

written by DONNA WRIGHT Bradenton Herald Staff Writer

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