Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Manatee's homeless count:

Cold weather worked to the advantage of homeless advocates who fanned out across Manatee and Sarasota counties from noon Monday to noon Tuesday to take count of the homeless.

"I don't like to think of anybody out in the cold, but the weather should help us get a higher count," said Adrienne Lazeroff, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

Results won't be announced until the end of March, but Lazeroff said wide participation indicates success.

"Thousands upon thousands of surveys were administered by hundreds of volunteers," Lazeroff said. "I feel we are going to have a really successful count."

That data is vital to securing more than half a million dollars in federal funds, as well as state and local grants to provide services to the local homeless, Lazeroff said.

The hope of more services sat well with homeless residents of a camp located in Ellenton, just north of Interstate 75 in a wooded area off U.S. 301.

A middle-aged man named Doug identified himself as the camp's spokesman.

"If it will help us get jobs and more services, then we ought to do it," said Doug, who declined to give his last name.

Lack of steady employment is the main reason many people are homeless, said Doug, who has been on the streets for more than five years. Both Doug and his fiancee, Kim, also a camp resident, had jobs at nearby restaurants until their employers found out they lived in the woods.

"When they find out you are homeless, they don't want anything to do with you," said Kim, who didn't want her last name used. "But we are people, too. Give us a chance. Get to know us. "

The Ellenton camp, with its wind chimes and potted plants hanging from the trees, has been home to Kim and Doug for more than two years. They share the clearing with about 50 other campers, living in a circle of tents that surround a common area defined by a tarp stretched over a tent pole and secured to the ground.

The camp is guarded by a dog named Molly.

The biggest threat to the camp is not from law enforcement, Doug said, but from what he called the "bad homeless" - the ones on crack cocaine and other hard drugs.

"People who are on crack and stuff, man, they'd come in here and slit your throat, just to get more of it," said Doug, who takes pride in keeping order.

"When anybody comes here, the first thing I ask is, 'Do you do hard drugs, any kind of hard drugs? If you do, you might as well turn around and leave 'cause that is something we don't tolerate back here. We never did and we never will," said Doug.

The Ellenton camp was one of nine surveyed by volunteers Avery Burke, Connie Insley, Mike Mahan and James McEntee, all homeless outreach specialists with Manatee Glens.

During the 24-hour period, they surveyed 41 people living in the woods.

A homeless man who said his name was Jack completed the survey at the Manatee County Central Library. He arrived in Bradenton two weeks ago from Rhode Island. Although experienced in just about every construction trade, Jack said he has been unable to find work.

"You have to get to the day labor places by 4 in morning just to get in line," he said. "There are hundreds of men lining up for work and they just don't have enough jobs to go around."

Lack of steady work was the primary cause of homelessness cited by people surveyed by Trudy Bailey, a volunteer who worked the survey table at the library.

She said she believes that past counts in recent years have greatly underestimated the size of Manatee's homeless population.

Bailey is seeing more families, especially single women with children, seek help through the Open Door, where she volunteers.

"Homelessness is not going to go away unless we do more to help these unfortunate people," said Bailey. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Most residents do not realize how many working homeless they encounter during the day, said Lazeroff.

Case in point, Lazeroff said, was the Publix cashier who checked out the sandwich platters for the press conference after the end of the census. Turns out she is homeless, too.

"No one would ever know she is homeless," said Lazeroff. "She does not fit the typical profile."

But that was the typical profile of people interviewed by Lt. William Evers of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, who volunteered for the census.

"The ones I encountered were working homeless," Evers said. "I think most people assume that if you are homeless, you are not working, but that's not necessarily true."

Homelessness is not a government issue, said Sarasota County Commissioner Paul H. Mercier, a member of the Suncoast board, at Tuesday's press conference.

"It's a community issue," Mercier said. "We need to identify the homeless, and local businesses must be part of the solution."

"Of all the people we have surveyed, there is not one of them that would not work if they could find employment," said Bailey.

The solution is not just jobs, said Lazeroff, but employment that pays a decent wage so people can afford housing.

Herald Staff Writer

Homeless census crucial for help:
Sarasota County counts its homeless, a step in getting them assistance.

Unfortunately, the Sarasota Herald Tribune has asked me to remove the article. I am very disappointed in this request. I am simply attempting to maintain an electronic scrapbook so that the community can find recent information about homelessness in one place. I will see if there is any room to negotiate with them about use of their material. In the meantime, in the interest of civility, I have removed the article. Below is a link that you must cut and paste into your browser bar.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Homeless census underway in Manatee County: Cold weather forced the homeless to the Salvation Army shelter in Bradenton, which housed 149 on Sunday night, 47 over capacity, according to Robert Greubel, the men's lodge manager.

With all 102 beds filled, the men found sleep on mats and blankets in the TV room.

"We do what we can. We try not to turn anybody away when it gets cold," said Greubel, who expects to see just as many men throughout the cold snap. "It's pretty much given on nights like this."

Meanwhile, on the eve of the coldest day of the year to date, the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness has joined with 45 local agencies to administer a 24-hour bicounty census, which began at noon Monday and ends at noon today.

The homeless survey is required by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development to take place during the last seven days of January, when the cold is more likely to drive them to shelters, said Adrienne Lazeroff, executive director of Suncoast Partnership to End Homeless.

"It's quite literally a snapshot of who is homeless at a particular time," she said. "It's very likely we will see many more people seek shelter because people in this climate may not have winter jackets and heavy blankets. No one wants to sleep outside when it's 34 degrees."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Miami's poverty a grim backdrop to Super Bowl glitz: The bomb-sniffing dogs are training. Fleets of limos are on the way. The ink is dry on anti-gouging pledges. Thousands of volunteers are on the march. Concierges are hustling to fill every VIP whim.

And Miami's newest homeless camp, a plywood and pallet shantytown, is gussying up to take center stage, if only for a moment.

With South Florida gearing up to host its record-tying ninth Super Bowl next Sunday, community titans have the drill, the details and the mission down pat. Their primary aim is to show off South Florida's best side, then revel in the estimated $350 million tourism bonanza.

As hundreds of posters and banners hanging on windows and from streetlights in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties say, "One game. One dream. One chance to shine."

But the world's most-watched sporting event is also offering an opportunity to shine a laser beam on the other Miami: the third-poorest city in the nation, where living wages and affordable housing are out of the reach of many of the residents helping to foot the Super Bowl tab.

Against a backdrop of lavish parties -- some with admission rivaling the $3,000-plus going rate for tickets to the Indianapolis Colts/Chicago Bears game -- advocates for the homeless and poor are staging a "Reality Tour." On Wednesday, a bus will take a few of the thousands of journalists converging on South Florida on a short drive to communities a world away from trendy Miami Beach, where the reporters will work, stay and presumably play.

"There is one game and one dream, but different realities," said Joseph Phelan, an activist with the Miami Workers Center. "Miami is the playground of the rich and famous, but it is not paradise for the poor . . . and the only thing the city and county are doing about it is filling their pockets with tourism dollars from the Super Bowl."

New foe: Gentrification

Among the stops will be Umoja Village, a shantytown established last fall by squatters who claimed the city-owned land under a 1998 court settlement reached after Super Bowls past, when the city cleared out its homeless by confiscating and burning their belongings.

That practice is now illegal, but the squatters hope to highlight what they contend is the newest way of displacing the poor: gentrification. In many depressed neighborhoods, low-income and public-housing apartments have been razed to make way for pricey new condos, or for "affordable housing" that, despite millions spent, was never built.

Ironically, the most visible example sits across from one of the most tangible payoffs from the 1995 Super Bowl, the National Football League Youth Education Town Center in Liberty City. Started with a $1 million donation from the NFL, the YET Center is an oasis for children who live in one of Miami-Dade's toughest neighborhoods.

Inside the brightly painted walls, elementary kids are learning to build robots on brand-new Dell computers. Tutors help with homework and coaches teach an array of sports, from basketball and football to dance and fencing. All for free.

"It's fun," said David Spivey, 6. "You get to play games. You get to build stuff."

But more than six years ago, the county began bulldozing 850 public-housing units near the center, promising to replace them with half as many affordable homes. Today, $22 million later, only 10 houses are complete, and the number of kids the center serves has plummeted -- from about 800 a day to about 300.

Habitat for Humanity has since taken over the project, and the housing agency is under investigation for fraud and mismanagement.

"Substance is a lot more important than image, and it bothers me that the county is more interested in maintaining the illusion of glitz and glamour than it is in dealing with the reality of poverty and corruption," said Max Rameau, a community activist who organized the squatters village.

Local economy's boost

But for South Florida, the Super Bowl is all about image. In the view of community leaders, the region's economic future rests on the Super Bowl's success. Not on the game at Dolphin Stadium, but on the impression that sunny South Florida leaves on the estimated 120,000 visitors, including 3,500 credentialed media, and 1 billion worldwide TV viewers expected to watch the game.

Though some analysts question the figure, officials with the South Florida Super Bowl XLI Host Committee estimate that visitors and the NFL will pump more than $350 million into the regional economy. That's 35 times more than the $10 million the committee raised -- a total of $2 million from Miami-Dade and Broward counties and the rest from corporate sponsors -- to house the teams; throw parties for the media; hire a concierge service to line up yacht slips and tee times for corporate high-rollers; extract anti-gouging pledges from hoteliers; recruit 8,000 hospitality volunteers; and infect residents with Super Bowl fever.

"There's a huge multiplying effect," said Rodney Barreto, the host committee's chairman. "If visitors have a good time, they come back. They buy real estate. They move their companies here."

If the Reality Tour is the worst publicity that South Florida has to contend with this week, Barreto will be happy. A member of three previous host committees, he knows too well that calamity can knock at inopportune times.

In 1989, just six days before kickoff, the Super Bowl was upstaged by the fatal shooting of a black motorcyclist by a white policeman in Miami's poorest black neighborhood. Instead of Miami's new skyline and tropical sophistication, newspapers and broadcasts around the world were dominated by combat-ready cops, rampaging youth, burning cars -- and stories about the two Miamis.

But, Barreto notes, a good deal has changed since then, most notably a concerted effort to ensure the NFL and host committee's largesse reaches every segment of the community. To date, he said, minority and female-owned businesses in South Florida have been awarded $14 million in NFL contracts for catering, barricades and other services needed to throw the grandest party around.

That sum eclipses the $10 million record set in Detroit last year and is one reason Darryl Holsendolph, a Miami native who grew up blocks from the shantytown, would prefer activists chose a different time to air the county's dirty laundry.

As the holder of the contract to sell NFL souvenirs at Miami International Airport, Holsendolph, 43, says he is proof of a Super Bowl's trickle-down effect. For his first Super Bowl in 1995, his company, Holsen Inc. Merchandising, hired about 25 people. For the 1999 game, his staff grew. And for next week's game, he has about 100 people on the payroll -- 60 percent of them from his old Liberty City neighborhood.

"What happened with housing is a shame, but it has nothing to do with Super Bowl," he said. "I suggest now is the time to start looking for opportunities in 2010."

And that, of course, is when South Florida is set to host the Super Bowl for a record-breaking 10th time.

by Maya Bell
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A homeless survey is underway throughout the state of Florida. Here is a report from central Florida:

More than 60 agencies are asking questions in 3 counties with the hope they will get an accurate count.

Waiting in line for his noontime meal Friday, Larry Allen agreed to tell how and why he ended up homeless.

The 50-year-old laborer was among more than 1,000 homeless people across Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties interviewed by volunteers in the first homeless census in three years.

The headcount helps determine how much federal cash will flow to Central Florida to tackle the problem. The survey identifies what help -- beyond shelter -- the homeless need.

A similar tally, minus the questionnaire, was done in Volusia earlier in the week. The main goal is to get a fresh idea of the number of the homeless, which at last count was about 9,000 across the region.

This time, the homeless and advocates both predict the same results: an increase in homeless families and homeless who work, and not enough emergency beds, much less enough for people who want detox or mental-health care.

"I've been hoping to find a place so I can get over this and get on with my life," said Allen, who wants out after six months of living in the woods and the occasional shelter.

Allen's story is familiar to those who work with the homeless.

Allen said he has always worked, but he started drinking too much. He tried to dry out on his own but said alcohol seems to surround him.

Thursday night, when temperatures dipped near freezing, Allen said he drank too much again. It kept him warm as he slept outside a downtown building but kept him from getting to work on time Friday morning.

"I know I can quit, if I just get a little time away. There just isn't a place for me to go," he said.

Orlando is home to a handful of large shelters with programs in job training, life skills and how to stay straight once an addiction is kicked.

With the jump in the numbers of working poor and needy single women with children, some facilities also have playgrounds, day care and Headstart pre-school on site.

But only the Men's Pavilion at the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida accepts people who are intoxicated. And they can be booted if they cause trouble.

"Any addiction or mental illness, those people don't have anywhere to go," said Don Moody, who heads the Orlando Union Rescue Mission.

The mission's men's shelter used to take in those clearly under the influence. After too much commotion and anxiety, it began screening.

Now, the 120-bed men's center includes 50 set aside for those living there longer term and going through education training and 12-step recovery.

Those will be the easy people to find, log into the census and approach with the questionnaire.

The more invisible homeless -- who stay in the woods or camps or blend into the downtown landscape -- simply will be counted.

A medical-outreach team that works in the three-county metro area has been recording numbers of those homeless all week. Police in downtown Orlando, Kissimmee, Sanford and St. Cloud will report Thursday and Friday night counts in their cities on those overnights, said Cathy Jackson, director of the Homeless Service Network of Central Florida.

In Volusia County, this year's count of the homeless was taken Sunday and Monday. That's earlier than other counties, because with thousands of fans in town for a 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway, advocates said they would have a hard time figuring out who was homeless.

"When you have visitors carrying around blankets and backpacks, how do we know if they are going to the race or if they are homeless?" said Lindsay Roberts, executive director of the Volusia-Flagler Coalition for the Homeless.

Past counts have been unclear. Anywhere between 2,600 and 3,000 homeless have been estimated to live in Volusia and Flagler counties.

Advocates routinely say that about 7,000 homeless live in the metro area, but some agencies claim it is closer to 5,000.

Results of this year's tally, scheduled to be released in March, should include a more firm number.

And with federal money going to communities based on successful programs, not just total numbers, the total will be less important than the details about who the homeless are and what works in helping them.

"The main reason for doing this is to keep the issue on the public agenda," said James Wright, the University of Central Florida professor who will analyze the data. "This issue is not going away."

Neither is Allen. As he talked with an interviewer and reporter, his eyes drifted to construction at a nearby lot.

A backhoe scooped up mounds of dirt, while men in hard hats graded the slope down to a retention pond. Working on heavy machinery, Allen said, was how he had always made a living.

Seeing the work being done all over town reminded him how far he had fallen, working day-labor jobs when he could.

"I look at it every day," he said. "I didn't lose my skills, but I lost my ability to hang in there. I just need a place to go, and I will win this war."

April Hunt
Sentinel Staff Writer

January 27, 2007

Friday, January 26, 2007

If being homeless means you sleep in a different place most nights because your addictions and demons steal your rent and sabotage your job, then David Heath was homeless.

But if being homeless means you have nowhere to go and no one to take you in, then Heath was something else: a drifter, a free spirit, maybe a transient. He had an extensive circle of family and friends, and they say there was always a couch or a spare room for him. He needed only to call.

Either way, Heath's death has helped put the spotlight on homelessness, just as his life illustrates how nuanced and complicated the problem can be.

David Heath spent the last years of his life searching for a program that would finally get him off drugs.

Always he faced a wait to get in, or a dealer waiting the moment he got out, or a fellow addict who waited for "lights out" to light up. He never really got away from the chloroform haze of crack, but he never quit trying.

Heath spent the last minutes of his life bleeding to death in an alley. Police think he was gunned down by the same three teenagers who killed another homeless man nine blocks away. Both died just after midnight Jan. 17.

Heath, 53, will be buried today.

With his family and friends and a thousand-watt smile, David Merlin Heath should have owned a bungalow in Pass-a-Grille or a condominium on Beach Drive. He should have had a job as a midlevel manager and driven a Toyota Camry.

In the end, he had none of those things - not even a driver's license. But the father of three considered himself rich in family, his siblings and parents say.

"He was a good guy. He just had a hard time. He never gave up," said Heath's mother, June Bartke.

In college, he changed

Heath came from a family of prominent restaurateurs. They owned the Causeway Inn, the Rocky Point Dinner Theater, the Careless Navigator Restaurant on Treasure Island, the Red Cavalier on Madeira Beach. Heath often worked at those restaurants as a young man. Baseball teams in town for spring training regularly stopped by, and Heath and his family became friends with ballplayers and managers.

Heath even became a spring training bat boy for the New York Mets, including the "Miracle Mets," who won the 1969 World Series.

He graduated from Boca Ciega High School and briefly attended Florida State University in Tallahassee, where his grandmother paid for him to join a fraternity.

It was while at FSU, Heath's parents say, that he began experimenting with drugs. He was still chatty and friendly, a natural salesman. But somehow he "just wasn't satisfied," said his father, Glen Heath.

Heath married, had two children, and divorced. He worked as a telemarketer and beer salesman. He wandered to Texas, then Hawaii. He married a second time and had a third child before he divorced again.

When things got really bad, Heath would enroll in a drug rehabilitation program. He tried Operation PAR, a church program in Central Florida, Alcoholics Anonymous. He even took a trip with his father to see the Ohio hospital where the AA organization was founded.

He would call up his father and tell him, "Boy, this is going to help me."

Then, Heath would walk away.

"We would always try to get him into a long-term program, but he was never able to put himself through it," Glen Heath said.

Eventually, David Heath developed symptoms of bipolar disorder, a brain malady characterized by periods of depression and mania. Some 60 percent of the homeless and transient populations are mentally ill, according to annual surveys by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and 26 percent are substance abusers.

He tried to do better

Heath's substance abuse and mental illness led to a long string of relatively minor crimes, including cocaine possession, driving without a valid license, criminal mischief, battery, probation violation and shoplifting, for which he served probation and short jail terms.

But Heath also had long stretches of sobriety and sanity, his family said. He'd visit them, spend time with his children, hold down a job, date. He'd travel, see the ocean, listen to music. He'd dream about getting all the pieces put back together.

Then he'd get caught up again in the cycle of substance abuse and he'd drop out of the picture for a while, not wanting to hurt or embarrass his family.

"He had a complicated life," said brother Nick Castrinos.

Heath, who read the Bible regularly, frequently counseled the homeless he met when he did stay at a shelter. He attended AA meetings, sometimes even twice a day. But he didn't talk much about his own problems there, and instead focused on the troubles of others, his father said. He even spoke about becoming a counselor someday and helping other addicts recover.

"He was kind and generous," said Bartke, his mother.

Friends and family say Heath had a talent for getting people to trust and like him.

Billy Rogers, a 43-year-old painter, met Heath outside a convenience store several weeks ago. Heath asked if he could use his phone, and Rogers said yes.

Soon, the two were spending time together regularly. Heath talked about getting a job, and eventually rooming with Rogers in an apartment. Rogers said Heath had a knack for talking to people; when a couple bickered over bills or had some other argument, they could count on Heath to say: "Everything will work out. Things will be okay."

While Heath often talked about a more stable life, he still wandered around and slept wherever he could, Rogers said. He had a lot of friends in the city and stayed on their couches, or in their spare rooms. Heath also frequently stayed at local homeless shelters.

But life was cut short

The night he died, Heath stopped at a Burger King on Central Avenue near 35th Street. An employee there, someone whom Heath had never met, let him use her cell phone. He called friends, asking for rides. Eventually, he began walking. He was headed to Rogers' house, where he sometimes slept on a hammock in the back yard.

He was killed a few blocks away. So was Jeff Shultz, 43, whose body was found nine blocks from Heath's.

But all the friends' couches and shelter cots in the world would not have helped someone like Heath, said Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and national expert on housing and homeless. People whose addictions or mental illness prevent them from keeping their own home need what's called "supportive housing," where residents get counseling and drug rehabilitation.

"Shelters are not an answer," Culhane said. "Once folks have housing, then they're interested in recovery."

Heath may have been on the verge of finding supportive housing. He had planned to visit his father in Ohio in early January. But then he got accepted to a treatment center in Louisiana, and he wanted to go there instead. He was just waiting for Medicare to cut the check.

Glen Heath remembers one of the last conversations he had with his son. "I'm tired of living the way I am," he told his father, "and I want to change."


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Salvation Army's Tanners honored:
About 30 people came out Wednesday for a breakfast of grits and eggs, coffee and juice, and to honor Majors Bert and Teresa Tanner.

Bert Tanner served as area commander of the Sarasota Salvation Army for eight years, and his wife served with him, overseeing some of the nonprofit agency’s programs.

They have been reassigned to Atlanta to serve as territorial and associate directors of a Salvation Army project to build state-of-the-art community centers in the country.

“I hate to be here for this,” said Mimi McAdoo, who has served on the Salvation Army board since 1979.

“I hate to be here for this too,” Bert Tanner responded.

He and his wife were given a proclamation from the city and a plaque from the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, who organized the breakfast.

They were praised for their dedication to helping the homeless in this community and people in need.

Richard Martin, chairman of the partnership, said he was sorry to see Santa Claus leave Sarasota. Each year Bert Tanner grows out his beard to play the jolly elf for senior citizens and children.

Many at the breakfast voiced their appreciation, and said the couple will be missed.

The Tanners spoke lovingly of a community where they hoped to retire.

“My regret is I didn’t find a way to do more for more people,” Bert Tanner said.

He encouraged the community to continue working on finding solutions to the root causes of homelessness.

“I know your heart, and your intent is good,” he said. “You’re an ideal city, and you have the opportunity to be a lighthouse and a beacon on the hill. I think you can find a legitimate solution. I encourage you to look everyday for new ways to do that.”

By PATTY ALLEN-JONES Sarasota Herald Tribune

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Police operation leaves city stained:

After St. Petersburg police cut down the tents of homeless people camped beneath an overpass, the reaction was swift and predictable. Replays of the video on local television and the Web site YouTube brought a flood of harsh criticism for the city's heavy-handed tactics. Contrary to Mayor Rick Baker's favorite opening line, it wasn't a great day in the city of St. Petersburg.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon, who approved the raid, stated the obvious: "I think the perception was not good of how and what we did." No kidding. So why couldn't Harmon have foreseen that outcome? Now, people worldwide will view St. Petersburg as a heartless place where police destroy the property of those who have little to begin with. Good luck on reversing that image anytime soon.

Days earlier, Baker had handled the dismantling of a larger tent city nearby with more finesse. County and private social service agencies were brought in to offer the campers help in the form of rent vouchers, bus tickets home or shelter space. Those who refused or failed to get such help formed a new tent city.

Homeless-rights activists behind both tent cities undoubtedly hoped to provoke a police overreaction. Not only were video cameras at the ready, but the tents were quickly replaced. More homeless people are likely to join the cause, which has now taken on the dimensions of a political struggle. People will differ on whether such tactics serve the best interests of the homeless, but clearly there is an unmet need in St. Petersburg despite efforts by the city and charitable groups.

Several groups are working to secure more shelter space for the homeless so that it won't be necessary for them to pitch tents or sleep in the open. That process will take time. Meanwhile, Baker and Harmon need to turn the focus back to providing services instead of slashing tents.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Great St. Pete Homeless Tent Raid:

"He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise."

- Luke 3:11

Oh, sure, that's the kind of place I want my city to be - a city where, when kind-hearted people donate tents to the homeless, the city stages a raid and cuts them up.

Good grief!

Did they give each other high fives at City Hall afterward Friday? Did they throw each other a party? Bake a cake? Put up a "Mission Accomplished" banner?

Mayor Rick Baker told a St. Petersburg Times reporter on Monday that he didn't know about the raid in advance.

Ah. So that means someone down the chain of command took the initiative and said:

"Hey, I know! Let's go over and roust the homeless and cut up their tents and make unflattering national news, right after two homeless guys got murdered in our city, and after we forced a charity to shut down an earlier tent city! And, furthermore, let's don't tell the boss!"

(Note: The police officers I have seen on the scene have been professional, patient and compassionate. But this decision was not made by them.)

As for the people who had been living in those tents, here is good news.

They all magically disappeared as soon as St. Petersburg sliced and diced their sleeping quarters.

In fact, I heard one of them say:

"I foolishly believed that I, a worthless bum, could just sponge off you suckers in St. Petersburg, but your firm resolve has thwarted me! Now I and all my friends will be leaving your town."


The people living in the tents didn't magically disappear afterward, and few if any of them left town, because ...

Because they are, for the most part, us.

Everybody seems to have their own stereotype about "the homeless." And it's usually one size fits all.

To the mayor, the homeless seem to be uncooperative folks who won't take advantage of all the Wonderful Services the government and the private sector offer. What else do Those People want?

To some of the angry citizens I hear from, the homeless are lazy bums. They are the reason we can't walk through a park, or get off an exit ramp without being harassed.

But quite a few of the people in those tents work at minimum-wage jobs, or day labor, trying to afford a place to live. It was a small comfort for them to have a tent to sleep in, a place where other people might watch their stuff.

Some are families. About a fifth of the total homeless population is under 18.

Without a doubt, some of the homeless have problems. Some aren't getting treated for mental illness. Our society's answer for that one is to throw them in jail for a while.

And, yes indeed, for those of us looking to feel smug, if you look hard enough, you can find addicts, or burglars, or even just plain old bums.

But there is no one "homeless" population, and so there is no one solution.

But even if there were, it would not be just rushing over and cutting up tents - good grief! What kind of people are we?

By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
Published January 23, 2007

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Fortress For the Homeless:

When an emaciated, gray-haired woman staggered into the ragtag encampment complaining of a toothache the other day, Eugene Simpkins fed her peanut butter sandwiches from the communal kitchen and fetched her aspirin from the makeshift medicine cabinet.

As night fell, the woman slept on a urine-stained couch, while Mr. Simpkins fried batches of cornmeal-dusted fish over a campfire. He pointed out four sick people he had been tending to since joining Umoja, a settlement of formerly homeless people in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, last month.

"I know someday I'll be old like her," said Mr. Simpkins, 43, who said he was an ordained Baptist minister and had lately been serving as Umoja's unofficial cook. "I just hope that when that day comes, there will be someone to take care of me."

Social experiment
With 16 huts cobbled together from plywood, discarded closet doors and cardboard, Umoja is a shantytown in the shadow of the biggest construction boom Miami has seen since the 1920s. Started in October by an advocate for low-income housing, it is part social protest and part social experiment, with nightly meetings where decisions on whether to evict people or how to split up chores are determined by consensus.

Most of the 40 residents said they had been sleeping on the streets before moving into Umoja's colorful shacks. The eyesore has become a warm community, with a resident poet entertaining regularly, and has won over some neighbors, including those who now bring by homemade sweet potato pies, despite previous complaints about trash and noise.

Commissioner's help
The city commissioner who represents the area, Michelle Spence-Jones, had tried to shut the settlement down with an ordinance to require a permit for gatherings on public land. But after several visits to Umoja, she withdrew the ordinance and instead promised to arrange for trash pickup at the site three times a week.

Ms. Spence-Jones stopped short, however, at the group's request for a mailbox. "That sends a whole other message," she said.

Umoja, which means unity in Swahili, is the brainchild of Max Rameau, 37, a stay-at-home father. The shantytown is based on a 1998 court ruling in which a federal district court judge said Miami could not criminalize homeless people for conducting "life-sustaining acts" including eating, sleeping, lighting a fire and building temporary structures on public land if local shelters were filled.

Mr. Rameau and others said the settlement was a symbol of Miami's growing housing crisis.

With apartment vacancy rates at 1.7 percent, down from 4.7 percent three years ago, and rents rapidly rising amid gentrification of poor neighborhoods, a report in October by the Miami-Dade County planning department said the area would need 294,200 new housing units by 2025, 42 percent of them for "very low- or low-income households."

Steep price of housing
A separate 2006 study by Florida International University found that half the families in West Liberty City could not afford a studio apartment in the area.

Michael Stoop, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said shantytowns like Umoja were "indicative that shelters are not the solution, and that homeless folks want to have themselves treated in a more dignified way."

The shacks, many covered by blue tarps, are ringed by a row of earthen plots where residents grow cabbage, collard greens, kale and papaya. A portable toilet, stacks of firewood, and the kitchen and pantry are lined up along one side, and an improvised shower sits in the back.

Mr. Rameau dismissed the notion that Umoja was a publicity stunt.

"There's a protest element to it, but this is fundamentally not a protest," he said. "At a protest, you go to a place, you make your demands heard and then you go home. Here, this is home."

by Laura Rivera New York Times

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Police slash open tents to roust the homeless: St. Petersburg city officials raided two homeless camps Friday afternoon, seizing more than 20 tents and further rattling a community still shaken from the slayings of two of its own.

Those who refused to get out of their tents or remove their belongings watched as two dozen police and fire officials sliced the tops of the tents away from their bases, tossed them into a truck and drove off. Some said they didn't have enough time to get out before the officials began to cut with scissors, box cutters and other blades.

"I was in the tent when they started cutting," said Ken Argo, 54, who said he was asleep when police arrived. "It was very reckless of them."

The whole operation took less than 10 minutes.

The raid was the city's latest attempt to deal with the highly visible tent camps that have sprung up in recent weeks and a homeless population that is becoming increasingly organized and close-knit. Last week the city shut down a tent city on Fourth Avenue N after it said it helped about 100 of its residents get social services, including rent vouchers and bus tickets to cities where relatives or friends could help.

Those who didn't get or refused services soon set up their tents at one of two locations, Fifth Avenue N at 15th Street or Fifth Avenue N at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

But fire officials soon observed a host of fire code violations at the two satellite tent cities, said Lt. Rick Feinberg, a spokesman for the Fire and Rescue Department. People were smoking and cooking in their tents, he said. The tents were too close together, too close to public thoroughfares, and they didn't have fire extinguishers, he said.

Feinberg said the homeless also failed to get the required permits for their tents, which were set up on the public right of way.

"They were all in violation of codes," Feinberg said. "No one submitted plans for preparations for these two tent cities."

It's not clear if all the fire codes the city cited indeed apply. The code requiring a permit specifies tents greater than 120 square feet, which is larger than the tents used by most of the homeless. And a state fire statute initially cited by the city doesn't deal with tents, said a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal.

Still, city officials said their job is to protect and that there were significant safety concerns at the two locations, including danger from heavy traffic. City officials also said the homeless were given the chance to remove their belongings from the tents and were offered mats at a nearby shelter.

Rather than arrest or get in physical altercations with those who refused, the officers cut the tents, said Deputy Mayor Dave Metz.

"The tents were retained for evidence," Metz said.

The city's action outraged the homeless community, which said that instead of taking away tents, the police officers should have been searching for the people who killed two homeless men early Wednesday.

"And now they're putting all these people in jeopardy again," said Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries. The reason the homeless cluster in tents is for safety, Wright said.

Metz acknowledged the criticism but said the city did what it had to do. "I think you always have those implications, but our primary concern was safety."

Wright said that advocates for the homeless, who met Friday with the city to discuss things like getting fire extinguishers, plan to sue the city over the destruction of the tents and will seek an injunction to prevent another raid.

"We're getting more tents," Wright said.

"We're bringing down the big guns now. We're gonna sue 'em."


Resort-style homeless village or leper colony?

Volusia leaders might explore a developer's proposal for a $100M compound.

DeLAND -- As Volusia County's homeless problem races toward a boiling point, a local urban developer is proposing a controversial solution: a homeless village.

Michael Arth, who compares the project to Celebration or Baldwin Park, wants the county to build a $100 million compound in rural Volusia, far outside DeLand city limits, where transients would live, work and receive counseling.

The proposal instantly became a lightning rod for debate when it was unveiled this week, winning praise from some homeless advocates but drawing comparisons from others to leper colonies and internment camps.

"I have concerns of creating a gulag for homeless people who are not integrated into society, of essentially sending them to a reservation to live," said Lindsay Roberts, executive director of the Volusia-Flagler Coalition for the Homeless.

The project's hefty price tag almost guarantees it will never become reality, but Volusia leaders -- desperate to find a solution to the county's simmering homeless problem -- say they are willing to explore Arth's proposal and consider a modified design.

"I think it's pretty far-reaching. I don't know where the county would get the money," said County Chairman Frank Bruno, who plans to meet with Arth again next week. "I'm going to look at the property and look at possibilities . . .; there may be a need for housing areas like this."

Arth, who won acclaim in 2002 for transforming a derelict DeLand crime zone into the now-trendy Garden District, proposes building a 5,600-bed community on 125 acres near the Volusia County Branch Jail.

"Tiger Bay Village," as Arth has dubbed the plan, would be a resort-style, pedestrian-friendly village, complete with bungalows, dining halls, community gardens, a lagoon for swimming and winding paths for leisurely strolls. It would be the only community of its kind in Florida.

The facility would have on-site substance-abuse counselors, job-training and education programs and other services, Arth said.

"The tranquil and beautiful natural setting will be good for both physical and mental health, giving the appearance and ambience of a resort. Curious visitors visiting from suburbia will be heard to exclaim, 'Wow, I wouldn't mind living here,' " Arth wrote in his proposal.

The proposal offers few details about how to fund the community, which Arth said would cost about $17,500 per resident to build -- a price he says is ultimately less expensive for taxpayers than the cost of jailing vagrants or housing them in mental-health facilities.

"This is a permanent and compassionate solution," Arth said.

The notion of a designated homeless community is not new. Other U.S. cities have tried similar ideas, although when the homeless are segregated in rural areas, the programs typically fail, said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

"I think it's a proposal doomed to failure, and we would never support such a thing," he said. "Shipping the poor out of downtown areas is not the solution. . . . Most homeless would not leave the cities, no matter how fancy a place this place would be."

Stoops said the only time such efforts are even moderately successful are when they house the homeless in urban areas, where they can be part of the community and services are already in place. Programs in New York, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, have been the most successful, Stoops said.

Arth's proposal comes at a time when residents and businesses are increasingly complaining about the homeless. Recently, Daytona Beach police Chief Mike Chitwood proposed offering free bus tickets to send the homeless out of the city.

Last year, officials counted about 2,667 homeless people in Volusia County, up from 2,450 in 2003.

In DeLand, Agape Clubhouse fed 15 to 20 people a day last year; now, at least 35 people a day come in for meals, said Linda Brown, director of the homeless mission.

"It's become so large [that] we're having trouble handling it," said Brown, who added that she supports Arth's plan.

In the city's Garden District, where Arth lives, homeless people routinely sleep under residents' porches, panhandle in the streets and camp out in the neighborhood's vacant lot, frustrating the area's homeowners.

"I have had enough of these people. The sleaze in this neighborhood needs to end," said Maggi Hall, a Realtor who is leading an effort to crack down on panhandling in the Garden District. "These people don't want to work. They want drugs and booze, and we're living in fear here."

The problem is not going away, Roberts said. Arth's proposal, while far from perfect, is at least a step in the right direction, she said.

"People are so frustrated and so tired of the status quo," said Roberts. "The very idea that people recognize this as an issue is a very positive thing."

by Rebecca Mahoney
Sentinel Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Area churches join forces to help homeless families:

As homelessness continues to plague the county, a few area churches are banding together to launch a network that would feed homeless families and put a roof over their heads.

Seven Manatee County churches hope to launch the Interfaith Hospitality Network this year, which would house homeless families while focusing on getting them back on their feet.

"These people are often invisible to others," said Bert Panganiban, a member of Lakewood Ranch's Harvest United Methodist, one of the churches involved. "That doesn't make less important their needs."

The network would be a part of the nationwide Family Promise organization, also designed to fight homelessness, and be titled Family Promise of Manatee County.

"The idea is to get these families on their feet as quickly as possible, then bring in another family," said Diana Shoemaker, who is the president of the Family Promise board of directors for Family Promise. "Our goal is to help families regain their independence."

Each church would host 14 people for one week at a time. Families would be fed, and a van would take children to day care or school, while adults would be driven to work. If unemployed, they would be taken to a day center at Central Christian Church in Bradenton, where a social worker would help them find a job.

Only homeless families would be selected for the program and would be referred by organizations such as the Salvation Army or the Community Coalition on Homelessness.

"They're expected to be looking for jobs and for work," said Shoemaker. "We're looking for families who are committed to getting back on their feet."

The selection process allows for a smaller chance that churches will not have to deal with housing drug addicts or alcoholics, Shoemaker said.

Churches that have committed to the program include Harvest United, Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, First Assembly of God, Palma Sola Presbyterian Church and Trinity United Methodist Church.

The group needs support from three other churches to launch the network, as well as the help of a social worker, a 15-person van and monetary donations.

To help fund the initiative, Harvest United is holding a fundraiser square dance at 6 p.m. Jan. 20. The event is free to the public.

"The more we have, the less somebody else has," said Kurt Fowler, a Harvest member who is hosting the square dance at his home at 1230 136th St. N.E. in Bradenton. "People are supposed to love and help one another. We need to take care of each other."

For more information on the square dance, call Fowler at (941) 748-4890.
Herald Staff Writer

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Group aims to educate public on homelessness:

Adrienne Lazeroff has a very tough job.The former public policy analyst for Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C., is the new executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

Her task: Help more than 100 providers of homeless services in Manatee and Sarasota counties come up with a long-range plan to move the homeless to permanent shelter

Her top responsibility: Coordinating the Homeless Census on Jan. 29 in the two counties. The results will be critical in determining how much money Manatee and Sarasota get from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless programs.

That level of funding will help determine how much money the two counties get from local and state coffers.

Her biggest challenge: Educating the public on the true face of the homeless in our area.

In an interview with the Bradenton Herald, Lazeroff talked about the work ahead.

What prompted your move from Planned Parenthood advocacy to working with the homeless?

Some people see it as a shift in causes, but I don't. All of those issues lie under the bigger umbrella of social justice issues protective of human rights, reproductive rights, the right to health care, the right to affordable housing, the right to be free from violence.

What's your role in the upcoming Homeless Census?

The Suncoast Partnership is charged with handling all of the homeless data in our area. The census is required by HUD every two years and this is the first year Suncoast is leading the charge.

Is the Suncoast Partnership competing with other homeless coalitions for federal funds?

Yes, we are in competition with other areas that have much larger homeless populations than we do. That's why everything we can do to report the homeless in our community is critical to bringing down those funds.

Some homeless advocates criticize HUD's definition of homeless as too narrow. What's your view?

That is a fair assessment. HUD focuses on chronic homeless, people who are homeless for either a long period of time or who fall into homelessness regularly. HUD's guidelines are not family-based.

Narrowing the definition is a good way to reduce numbers, which I think is misleading.

Give us some examples.

This year, HUD will not count people who are in residential mental health or substance abuse facilities, or correction facilities who when released have nowhere to go. . . . We are very interested in those numbers to give us a real picture.

Will your count include people in treatment facilities and jails?

Yes, we will count the people who fit HUD categories as well as people we know are homeless who may be in jail or treatment or doubled up. HUD only counts young children who are in runaway or homeless shelters. HUD does not count young children who are doubled up with other families.

Will HUD count young children living with parents in motel rooms?

Only if they have a voucher from a homeless provider to pay for the night's stay. If they have enough money to pay for a motel room the night of the count, HUD does not consider them homeless.

Our data analysis that we will release the end of March will show the chronic homeless individuals in the HUD count as well as the larger picture of who we really think is homeless.

Are you counting homeless students?

Yes, we are partnering with Project Heart in Manatee schools and YMCA in Sarasota, which tracks homeless students, to get those figures in our counts. HUD is not interested in those counts, but we are.

Do you have enough staff and volunteers for the count?

We are partnering with 25 organizations like the Salvation Army or Our Daily Bread. We need volunteers who are bilingual, who can be at day labor, even at shelters because their staffs are so busy because the surveys are actually read to people. It's a one-page, front and back form with 27 questions that takes five minutes to complete. Anyone interested should go to and click on "How to Help."

What are your impressions of the homeless situation in Manatee and Sarasota counties?

This is a community that is really engaged in this issue. There are folks from government, from the private sector, from nonprofit organizations, private providers who are all working together to fight and reduce homelessness, more so than I had anticipated coming from Washington D.C.

What's your strategy for reducing homelessness?

We want to bring the 100 partners we work with from Manatee and Sarasota to think about a larger bi-county plan. We know Manatee County has a 10-year plan in place, but we want to establish a longer-term plan to address employment, housing through partnering with the business community and the criminal justice system. I'd like to think that Manatee's plan will be a springboard.

What is the most critical homeless issue in our area?

The need for housing. A report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition revealed that a person must make $16.35 an hour to afford housing in our community. The minimum wage just went up to $6.67. That is more than a $10 discrepancy.

The need in transitional housing is huge. People who have done everything right and are about to get out of homelessness have nowhere to go.

Last year, Sarasota was named the "Meanest city in the nation" in regards to homelessness and yet you say we have strong homeless programs? Where is the disconnect?

I think that ranking is based on Bradenton and Sarasota's anti-camping ordinances that ban people from sleeping on the streets.

Some folks think they are effective in connecting homeless people with needed services. Others think that the ordinance causes homeless to use the jails and other correctional facilities as shelters. The services we provide in the two counties are tremendous. We are lucky to have support from the government in both counties. That alone shows that we are not the meanest city.

Many homeless advocates say the average age of the homeless is 9. Where did that statistic come from? Is it true?

It comes from an organization called Homes for the Homeless. Honestly I don't know if that applies to our communities, but I do know that this year alone our homeless providers provided services to more than 4,000 children and that is a low number because we know there are other children who aren't seeking services. Over 3,000 families were served by our homeless providers in the two counties last year.

We know the real number is a lot higher.

Herald Staff Writer

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The first national estimate in a decade found there were 744,000 homeless people in the United States in 2005 and almost 61,000 of those are living in Florida.
A little more than half of the nation's homeless were living in shelters, and nearly a quarter were chronically homeless, according to the report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, an advocacy group.
A majority of the homeless were single adults, but about 41 percent were in families.

California led the nation with more than 170,000 homeless people. New York was second with just over 61,000, followed closely by Florida.
The group compiled data collected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development from service providers throughout the country. It is the first national study on the number of homeless people since 1996. That study came up with a wide range for America's homeless population: between 444,000 and 842,000.
Counting people without permanent addresses, especially those living on the street, is an inexact process. But the new study is expected to provide a baseline to help measure progress on the issue.
"Having this data brings all of us another step closer to understanding the scope and nature of homelessness in America, and establishing this baseline is an extremely challenging task," HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said. "Understanding homelessness is a necessary step to addressing it successfully."
HUD is preparing to release its own report on homelessness in the coming weeks, Jackson said. In the future, the department plans to issue annual reports on the number of homeless people in the U.S.
Some cities and states have done their own counts of the homeless, providing a mix of trends, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. For example, New York City and San Francisco have seen decreases, while the number of homeless in Washington, D.C., has increased, Roman said.
"In the last 12 to 18 months, the homeless population has essentially exploded in Philadelphia," said Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, which provides free legal services to the homeless in Philadelphia. "We are seeing big increases in singles and families, both on the street and attempting to enter the homeless system."
"It's a whole influx of new people, and that's the really scary part," Cohen said.
In Columbus, Ohio, workers are scrambling to help an increasing number of people living under bridges and in wooded encampments near rivers and streams, said Barbara Poppe, executive director of the Community Shelter Board.
"We're very concerned about the health and well being of those people being out in the elements," Poppe said. "We had an encampment set on fire, and we had a woman struck by a train."
California was the state with most homeless people in 2005, about 170,000, followed by New York, Florida, Texas and Georgia, according to the report.
Nevada had the highest share of its population homeless, about 0.68 percent. It was followed by Rhode Island, Colorado, California and Hawaii.
"The driver in homelessness is the affordable housing crisis," Roman said. "If we don't do something to address the crisis in affordable housing we are not going to solve homelessness."
She said many of the chronically homeless have mental health and substance abuse problems. Others, she said, simply cannot afford housing.
On The Net: National Alliance to End Homelessness

Saturday, January 13, 2007

St. Pete Evicts Homeless Inhabitants Of Tent City: On Friday morning a young woman made the first of several trips out of the makeshift community of homeless people that has come to be known as "Tent City."

Clutching hangers and plastic supermarket bags filled with clothing, she made her way to a spot beneath Interstate 275, two blocks away. The woman later returned to the encampment for her tent. She dragged it down the street, accidentally leaving one of the tent's metal stakes behind on a sidewalk.

"We have to leave by this evening," the woman said, pushing strawberry-blond hair out of her eyes. "I don't want to have to do it at the last minute."

Anyone who remained on the 4 acres at Fourth Avenue North and 13th Street had been told by the St. Vincent de Paul Society that they had until noon Friday to leave.

The charitable organization never planned to physically remove the site's temporary inhabitants, however, said Sophie Sampson, the society's executive director.

That left a second deadline of midnight Friday, when St. Vincent de Paul was expected to be in violation of city codes prohibiting tent cities anywhere in St. Petersburg. City police on Friday evening said anyone with a tent still on the property could remain there for the night. Today, however, they will be asked to leave or face arrest on trespassing charges, police spokesman Jim Haley said.

Winter Produces Tent Cities
Tent cities often appear in Florida communities during the winter. The Rev. Bruce Wright, a local advocate for the homeless, said they have risen in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota.

Tent cities give homeless people a sense of community and safety that they lack while fending for themselves on city park benches, in doorways and beneath highway overpasses, Wright said.

As Friday's deadlines loomed, Pinellas County social services employees and St. Vincent de Paul workers scrambled to find temporary shelter, bus fare or gasoline money for the homeless people who remained at tent city. The site's population, which peaked at about 150 people, had dwindled substantially by Friday morning.

Assistance Offered, Taken
County officials issued roughly 40 rent vouchers, said Cliff Smith, assistant director of Pinellas County's Human Services. Another dozen tent city residents were offered mats to sleep on at a local shelter. Twelve more received various forms of travel aid. One man, for example, accepted a ride to Tampa, where he boarded a bus to West Virginia, where his brother lives.

There were complaints. A man with a back ailment said sleeping on a mat at a shelter would be painful. A woman who breathes with the help of an oxygen tent first was told the $623 stipend she receives for her disability disqualified her for a rent voucher.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society, as the property's owner, could have asked police to evict the tent city dwellers as trespassers on Friday. Instead, the society gave police the authority to prevent anyone who moved out from returning, Sgt. Tim Montanari said.

Sixty people remained at the site Friday morning, he said.

One of them was Tiny "Little Dirdy" May, 32, who recently was released from jail after being detained on crack cocaine charges. May had no intention of leaving, but if she had to do so, she said, she would move her tent down the street to a spot beneath the interstate overpass, just as the woman with strawberry blond hair had done.

1999: Fort Lauderdale's tent city, set up in the mid-1990s across from city hall, closes. Homeless people are taken to Broward County's new Homeless Assistance Center.

2004: Pasco County sheriff's deputies evict two dozen homeless people from a tent city near U.S. 19 and State Road 52.

2004: Monroe County and Key West officials agree to build a safe zone, or tent city, to provide shelter for homeless people in the island city.

2007: A Miami city commissioner withdraws a proposed ordinance that would have made it illegal for "Umoja Village" to remain on city property in Miami's Liberty City. The tent city also was established to protest a perceived lack of affordable housing for low-income Miami residents.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Housing instead of Jail cells:

A pressing need for jail beds has convinced Sarasota County to subsidize "sober houses" for graduates of local substance abuse programs who have no place to live, and face the prospect of being incarcerated because they are homeless.

On Tuesday, the county commission allocated $320,000 to help finance rents, security deposits, utilities, furnishings and other start-up costs for non-profit groups that lease and supervise group homes for up to six unrelated tenants in recovery.

While the pilot project envisions only 50 beds in a handful of homes that would provide a safe environment for up to 24 months, Commissioner Paul Mercier suggested the community's need for such facilities is probably closer to 500 beds.

"This should include condominiums and apartments," he said. "Our staff recommendation is that First Step of Sarasota [a rehabilitation organization] administer the funds, but my recommendation would be the Salvation Army because it's where people look for help."

The county has philosophically grappled with how to address homeless people who have substance abuse issues, but are not lawbreakers. Many of them are booked into the county jail because there is no other place to provide them with safe shelter.

Ironically, the county is currently in a legal jam with the U.S. Justice Department because it tried to close five Warm Mineral Springs group homes for residents who are recovering from alcohol and mental health problems. It has been charged with Fair Housing Act violations.

While the county's actions in the Warm Mineral Springs case were in response to complaints from unhappy neighbors, its motivation to put recovering substance abuse residents somewhere other than jail is directly related to the absence of available cells.

The county jail in downtown Sarasota is filled to more than its capacity of 1,050 inmates, and extra beds have recently been placed in cells to accommodate the overload. A county consultant has been hired to study the situation and make recommendations.

Last year, Sheriff Bill Balkwill requested a new mid-county jail outside the city limits for between 200 to 300 sentenced prisoners to relieve the crowding situation. The problem is where to locate such a structure without angering neighbors.

In 1998, the county commission considered locations outside the city and listened to complaints from residents who felt threatened by a jail near their neighborhoods. It reluctantly agreed to construct a 329-bed addition to the downtown facility.

Now the expanded jail is overcrowded. Absent plans for providing additional cells, the county commission has asked for relief from a state "zero tolerance" policy on the arrest and incarceration of probation violators because there is no place to put them.

The $320,000 allocation by the county commission will help fund a program called the "Community Alternative Residential Treatment Initiative," which also includes detoxification and stabilization services and a 10-week substance abuse program.

It has been endorsed by two organizations that deal with law enforcement and substance abuse issues, the Criminal Justice Commission and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Stakeholders Consortium. Both groups support interim housing for program graduates.

The concept of "sober homes" scattered around a community is based on the Oxford House model, which was established in Silver Springs, Md., 32 years ago and has been widely copied. Variations on the model are operating in Charlotte and Manatee counties.

Residents of the all-male or all-female "sober homes" typically sign a lease agreement for a maximum stay of 24 months, although some are allowed to remain indefinitely. Rent is typically $175 a week, with vouchers available for those who are unemployed.

The program described to the county commission includes a $10,000 annual payment to the provider of each home, plus $2,000 per resident. It includes about $100,000 for vouchers, which would be available for unemployed program graduates.

by Jack Gurney from the Pelican Press

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Can a city code make homeless vanish?

The temporary village that has sprung up on a vacant lot on Fourth Avenue North in St. Petersburg has about 50 tents.

Some of these are really just tarps tied to the chain-link fence running along the back of the lot, toward the interstate overpass.

Of the tents proper, some are of the smallest and most modest pup variety, just pieces of plastic and a stake. But others given by donors are nicer, modern camping rigs, and here and there stands a big, multioccupant affair.

Four blue portable toilets stand in a row just east of the tent city. At the southeast corner is a row of communal tents, where occupants can register, perhaps pick up a piece of donated clothing, or even get a haircut in a makeshift outdoor barber's chair.

This site is the property of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and since a week ago Friday it has been the relocated site of a gathering that previously existed beneath the overpass.

But last week St. Vincent de Paul got a notice from the city of St. Petersburg that it was violating city codes. Either the tent city must go, or St. Vincent de Paul will start being assessed fines.

On Friday morning, the Fourth Avenue site had taken on a bit of a circus atmosphere - not caused by the occupants, who for the most part went about their own affairs, but from everyone else.

St. Petersburg police officers conferred with St. Vincent de Paul representatives. They agreed that only the people already there and on an approved list could stay.

Maybe a dozen or so advocates for the homeless, representing various groups and philosophies, wandered around, conversing with occupants on a first-name basis.

I talked to a few occupants. They were happy to have a place to keep their stuff without it being stolen. They were glad to be able to get a full night's sleep without being rousted or attacked.

Several said they had minimum-wage jobs. I heard the term "first and last," meaning first and last month's rent, the ticket to nonhomeless status. "I'm working for my first and last," is the way to say it.

But some are mentally troubled or physically sick. There also have been a couple of burglaries in the neighborhood, which neighbors naturally attribute to the camp, although the occupants told me they are quick to point out troublemakers. They sign a code of conduct to stay there.

A sociology class from Eckerd College was on hand but was not allowed inside. The students stood on the sidewalk, conversing with occupants through the chain link.

Some of the advocates were upset, even at St. Vincent de Paul, for the rules keeping out newcomers and trying to discourage well-meaning citizens from pulling up on Fourth Avenue to make contributions. But St. Vincent de Paul was trying to balance the concerns of the city with its assistance to the occupants.

A retired engineer from Largo pulled up curbside with a trunk-load of blankets, jeans and shoes, and was upset when the police told him he could not enter. He had to park across the street and wait for word of mouth to travel. Soon, occupants were crossing the street to see him.

This week everybody will try to find places to relocate the occupants. But this is not going to go away magically. The city cannot wave a wand or cite a code and make the homeless disappear. Neither is there is enough room, not even a fraction of enough.

What would you do?

By HOWARD TROXLER, St. Pete Times Columnist
Published January 7, 2007

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Homeless Women in Bradenton: Hit with car repairs and medical bills, Leticia Longoria could not make her rent in November. Faced with the terrifying prospect of life on the streets with two children, Longoria, sought help at the Salvation Army family shelter. Two months later, she's still there, trying to save for a place of their own. Longoria, who makes $7.25 an hour, can stay as long as she is willing to work hard to get out.

Longoria's situation is typical, said Ashley Canesse, Salvation Army spokeswoman. As wages have not kept up with housing costs, affordable housing options decline. Those forces, Canesse said, result in longer shelter stays, which lower the number of people the shelter can serve. Five years ago the average family shelter stay was three weeks. By 2006, the average stay stretched seven months. "We took 1,640 calls from families and women last year who had no place to go," said Joanell Greubel, family shelter director. "But we had to turn away 1,401 because the family shelter was full."

The Salvation Army put some of those families in motels until a shelter vacancy opened. Others were referred to local social service agencies. The Salvation Army also runs a separate men's shelter, which housed more than 1,700 last year.
The shelter crunch is particularly hard on women without children, because women with children have priority, Canesse said. That policy has led to a misunderstanding among some local agencies that the Salvation Army will not take women without children.

But last year, nearly half of the 243 people housed in the family shelter were women without children, the majority of them between 31 and 61. The family shelter count included 45 mothers or grandmothers with 87 children, half younger than age five."To take in more, we would have to make some leave, but where would they go?" Canesse asked. "Our first task is to eliminate economic obstacles, then get money for transportation and then money for housing," said Greubel.

Four shelter occupants shared how the Salvation Army is helping them reach that goal.

Leticia Longoria, 32
"It's hard to live here, because there are so many rules, but the Salvation Army has helped me so much," said Longoria, whose husband abandoned her and Yareli Jessamine, their 1-year-old daughter, in Texas in October, 2005. Longoria was one month pregnant at the time. Her husband didn't return even when his son, Felix Jesus, was born.

A licensed hair stylist, Longoria worked in a J.C. Penney beauty salon.

"My family helped as much as they could, but life was hard," she said.

She filed for child support, but the money never came.

In late August, she moved to Manatee County to join two of her cousins.

But she couldn't work as a stylist until she got a Florida license. That meant more classes. To get by, Longoria took a job on an assembly line, earning $7.25 an hour.

From August through October, she rented a room from her cousins, and then from two co-workers. But it never worked out. Too many people in too tight space, she said.

What little she saved was then wiped out by medical bills, car repairs and a trip to Texas for a child support hearing her husband failed to attend.

Greubel and her staff have helped Longoria complete her classes and file papers for her hair stylist's license, arrange for subsidized child care and set up a budget.

Longoria is determined to get out.

"If my kids don't get sick and my car doesn't break down, I will be OK," she said. "I have set a goal and I am sticking to it because my kids need me."

Tye Brawn, 23

Brawn entered the family shelter Nov. 29 on a referral from Catholic Charities. She was eight months pregnant with a child whose father is in jail on a drug charge. Complicated family situations made living at with relatives impossible, she said. Other shelters in Sarasota and Bradenton turned her down.

"Because of my drug arrests, nobody would take me," Brawn said. "But I stopped doing drugs when I found out I was pregnant. I don't want any part of that life any more. I am making a new life for me and my baby."

Greubel believed Brawn and gave her one of the few beds available for single women.

"She told me, 'Yes, you had trouble, but you are doing something about it, aren't you? You wouldn't be here, if you weren't looking for help.' "

If Greubel had not believed in her, Brawn doesn't know what would have happened.

"I've found out that when you stop fighting the world, the world stops fighting you," said Brawn, who is scheduled to have a delivery by Cesarean section Wednesday.

After the birth, Brawn said her mother has agreed to take her and the baby in until she is well. Then, Brawn hopes to return to the shelter with her new son.

"I - we - are going to be OK, with their help," Brawn said, laying her hand on her belly. "Someday I am going to wake up in my own place, and I will have done it on my own because they helped me."

Nancy Guzman, 36

Nancy Guzman completed six job searches Thursday, just as she has done every day since she entered the family shelter a month ago.

Guzman, mother of five, is confident that one of her prospects will come through, now that she is off her crutches and can walk easily.

Guzman lost her job as a cashier this fall when she broke her foot.

She says she had no benefits and no sick leave. Out of work, she was afraid to renew her lease on her apartment when it came due Nov. 30.

Her three oldest children, who are 18, 17 and 15, live with their stepdad, she said.

Her 11-year-old son is with a friend in Tampa.

Guzman's 9-year-old daughter is with her at the shelter.

This is Guzman's second stay. She sought help in September of 2005 when battling a drug addiction. During that first stay, Guzman was enrolled in an out-patient drug treatment program at Manatee Glens.

"I have been off drugs ever since," she said. "They wouldn't have let me back in here if I wasn't. I chose to be here because I didn't want to return to old friends and old habits."

With the shelter staff's help, Guzman has applied for subsidized housing. They have helped her work out a budget so she knows how much she needs to earn.

Michelle Besina, 36

Michelle Besina has been living at the family shelter with four of her five children for the past three weeks. Her oldest lives with a friend.

Her husband, Elgin Besina, is a construction worker and stays in the men's shelter. Like other shelter residents, he must complete six job searches a day until he finds work.

"It's hard to be separated from him, but we are lucky because the children and I are lucky to have a room of our own," Besina said.

"But we get to see him when we eat," said Scott, 7, as he cradled a plastic dinosaur in his arms. His sister, Tashina, 9, played with colored beads on the floor. Their older sisters, Felicia, 13 and Cheyenne, 12, were out for the afternoon.

The kids have adjusted, said Besina, but she worries about the future.

They came to Manatee County from Texas with her sister hoping to find work. But her sister left without them. They stayed in a motel until their money ran out. Then they turned to the Salvation Army.

Greubel and her staff are trying to help find them a place to live once her husband finds work.

"They have been so helpful," said Besina. "They gave the kids toys and clothes. We get to be all together during meals and outside. We are safe here, until we can get back on our feet."

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049 or at

Story by Donna Wright

Fair market rent in Manatee County for a two-bedroom apartment is $857. To afford this apartment:

• A household must earn $34,280 annually, or make $16.48 an hour.

• A minimum-wage worker at $6.40 an hour must work 103 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. (Based on 2006 minimum wage.)

• A worker earning $10.62 an hour (the average wage of renters in Manatee County) must work 61 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

• An apartment costing $857 a month is out reach for 29 percent of Manatee County families.

SOURCE: National Low Income Housing Coalition and U.S. Census Bureau

Monday, January 01, 2007

Federal officials have designated $5.8 million in additional funding to help Florida counties with homelessness.

While Charlotte County wasn't named among the counties to receive a share of the money, the county could find itself eligible to receive some of the $440,000 unallocated balance.

In early December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, announced that federal funds totaling $5,816,077 were awarded to Florida to help prevent homelessness and to feed and shelter the state's "hungry and homeless."

According to a press release, Congress made the money available to the National Board of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program. EFS grant funds can be used to supplement food, shelter, rent, mortgage and utility assistance programs for people with non-disaster-related emergencies.

The National Board of Charities -- which includes American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., The Salvation Army, United Jewish Communities and United Way of America -- decided how the money was to be allocated.

The board allocated money to 40 of Florida's 67 counties.

Among the specific allocations, Lee County received $146,639, DeSoto County received $11,141 and Sarasota County received $99,884. The three largest allocations were $936,055 to Miami-Dade County, $660,294 to Broward County and $467,287 to Palm Beach County.

"It is worth pointing out that FEMA did not decide which Florida counties would receive portions of that $5.8 million dollars," FEMA spokesman Josh Wilson said. "The funding decisions (were) based on a formula involving criteria such as current populations, unemployment and poverty levels."

However, a $440,000 balance was placed under the purview of the state "set aside committee," Wilson said.

Scott Morris, director of FEMA's Florida Long Term Recovery Office, sent a letter to the state committee, encouraging it to consider applications from counties, including Charlotte County, that may still have residents struggling to recover from hurricanes.

Bob Hebert, the county's recovery director, recently returned from Tallahassee and said the Florida Department of Community Affairs officials he spoke with didn't know about the $440,000.

Grant funds for homeless come out of the state's Office of Homeless and the state's Web site does offer grants up to $100,000 for emergency shelters. Since the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition is the county's lead agency, Hebert said Friday, he would suspect that the coalition is aware of the funds.

However, from his meeting with DCA officials, Hebert said he learned that a new program is being approved that could bring $2.2 million to the county and could help low- to moderate-income residents and business owners to harden their homes and businesses from wind and flood damage from future storms.

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