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 suncoastpartnership.org 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

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