Wednesday, March 28, 2007

House council OKs bill to battle homelessness:

Florida residents on the verge of becoming homeless could get an extra boost from the state if a measure that cleared a House council Tuesday makes it into law.

The bill, which would fund grants for local agencies that work to prevent homelessness, passed through the Healthcare Council as it makes its way toward the House floor. An identical bill is being offered in the Senate.

Rep. Faye Culp, a Tampa Republican backing the House measure, said homelessness is one of the key problems facing her city. Instead of paying for more temporary shelters, she said, the state should use its money to find permanent solutions for people who need a place to stay.

"Temporarily being in a shelter is not stable," she said. "It is not what we should strive for."

The idea for her bill, Culp added, originated in "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future," the far-reaching list of goals laid out by House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami.

Culp's measure would include a $250,000 grant to a Tampa group called Connected by 25 that works to find housing for young adults who are about to be phased out of the foster-care system. The group now relies solely on donations from individuals and businesses.

If the Tampa program proves successful, Culp said, she may try to cast a wider net for it during next year's legislative session. But for now, she said, she hopes other communities will view Connected by 25 as an example of how to prevent homelessness.

In Manatee County, the homelessness problem is growing.

There are more than 2,000 people without homes in the area, said Ashley Canesse, development director for the local Salvation Army.

"It's very hard to afford permanent housing in Manatee County right now," she said.

Many of Manatee's homeless people, she said, are local residents who just couldn't make ends meet in the face of rising costs.

A program like Culp's would be a positive step for the county, Canesse said.

"That's what we all want to do," she said. "We all know that people fare better if they're living in their own personal housing."

Bradenton Herald Staff Writer

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Humanize homelessness:

Talk of an ordinance to put an end to camping on public property is definitely meant for the homeless. And of course a way to solve a problem is to put them away. If homeless people had money to pay a fine for camping they would most likely have a home.

As for an end to panhandling, all these laws are directed at the economically challenged - poor people.

I would be the first to agree that there is a percentage of homeless people who just don't want to work. A small percentage. Most people are homeless under circumstances they have no control over. Loss of income or shelter at a crucial time can lead to years of homelessness. The government stopped the welfare system and a lot of people were left to their own devices. Then there are some people with mental health issues. Our medical and mental health system for the poor is a joke. Poor people die every day because they can't afford treatment. But as long as they stay out of sight that doesn't matter either.

So what do people do who are homeless? Where do they sleep? Where do they bathe? Where do they eat? People don't want panhandling. Would they rather someone just take their money? At least respect that they ask. No one has to give a panhandler money. It is your choice. I personally need the karma so I help everyone I possibly can. I'm sure a lot more of us could use the good karma.

And where do they sleep? We are so worried about appearance. Instead of worrying about the injustice of another human being, who has to sleep in an alley in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the response is, "That looks terrible. They're so dirty." These are our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and fellow Americans.

Maybe if we all thought of homelessness as not an issue but a personal thing that is happening to many good people it would be different. It needs to be individualized. We need to hear personal stories. When we make this a person-by-person thing instead of talking about an overwhelming 6,000 homeless people, maybe then compassion for our fellow man will win out over aesthetics. Personally, I would rather know that my tax dollars were going to help house and feed people rather than putting up new plants in front of some condos. But I'm crazy like that.

by Denise Hawke letter to the Editor Bradenton Herald

Monday, March 19, 2007

Manatee Churches Uniting to Help the Homeless:

Bill and Mary Townsley, in their Feb. 12 letter to the editor (Bradenton Herald), suggested that area churches open their buildings to help the homeless. The good news is that congregations in Manatee County are responding through the new Family Promise program to create an Interfaith Hospitality Network.

In this program, congregations will open their doors in the evenings to homeless families and provide shelter, volunteers and resources for up to 14 guests. Host congregations, usually three or four times a year, provide shelter in the evenings for a week's rotation. A social worker meets regularly with the families at a day center as guests actively seek housing, services and resources needed to regain their independence.

Volunteers in Manatee County congregations are working hard to get Family Promise up and running this year. So far we have seven of the 10 congregations needed to begin operations. Those participating in the network include: Palma Sola Presbyterian, Trinity United Methodist, Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, First Assembly of God, Harvest United Methodist, Westminster Presbyterian and First Presbyterian Church. The Family Promise day center will be housed at Central Christian Church in downtown Bradenton.

There is great potential for the Manatee County faith community. We have more than 100 congregations in Manatee County that could join us to provide a single, powerful, coordinated solution for homeless children and families. We'd like to encourage congregations of all faiths and interested individuals to join our effort.

The public is welcome to attend our next community information meeting Tuesday, March 20, at 7 p.m. at Central Christian Church, 926 15th St. W., or contact us at 794-6229. Come be part of a solution as we open our hearts and doors to provide hospitality and safe shelter to our most vulnerable neighbors.

Diana Shoemaker, President
Family Promise of Manatee County

Saturday, March 17, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Police Chief Chuck Harmon said Friday that officers would arrest homeless people as "a last resort" while enforcing strict new city ordinances that prevent people from sleeping on sidewalks and other public rights of way.

Speaking at a press conference just hours after a City Council meeting, Harmon said police officers would try to reason with homeless people who were violating the new ordinances and attempt to get them help, such as access to shelters. Officers would arrest homeless people only if they encountered stiff resistance, Harmon said.

"It is not our intent and has never been our intent to criminalize homelessness," Harmon said. "Enforcement is going to be our last resort."

The City Council passed a series of ordinances Thursday night that forbid people from putting up tents or any other temporary shelter on public property. The ordinances also prohibit sleeping on rights of way adjacent to residences or sleeping on any right of way if shelter space is available.

The City Council approved the ordinances over the objections of advocates for the homeless and a coalition of civil rights groups and the Pinellas-Pasco public defender's office, which told council members that the laws may be unconstitutional.

The city has also reopened a tent city on property owned by St. Vincent de Paul on Fourth Avenue N that it shut down in January, saying it will have room for 75 tents.

The police department's vow to reason with the homeless was a far cry from the harsh approach it took after the murders of two homeless men in January, when officers raided two tent cities and cut tents with scissors, knives and box cutters.

Both Harmon and Mayor Rick Baker called the raids a mistake after they provoked outrage and drew national attention.

By Friday morning, the two satellite tent cities appeared abandoned. Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said there were 75 tents and 100 people at the city-endorsed tent city.

Several homeless residents in the new, sanctioned tent city said they appreciated the security. But some added that they wanted more input and resent having to wear wristbands.

"How would you like someone to build a house for you, an architect, and he doesn't consult you at all?" asked G. W. Rolle, who has been homeless since October.

Some homeless people have gone to the Lakewood United Church of Christ on 54th Avenue S, where parishioners have voted to open a 30-tent encampment on church property. City officials say any property owner needs a permit before allowing people to sleep outdoors.

Harmon said police officers had recently gone by the church, but not seen any tents. If tents are erected, Harmon said, it would be a code enforcement issue, not a police matter.
by Abhi Raghunathan who can be reached at
Times staff writer Christopher Ave contributed to this report.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

In St. Petersburg, as homeless pull up stakes, some entrench:

The city on Wednesday began coaxing about 75 homeless people to leave a group of sidewalks near downtown for a lot it controls.

It will not be an easy task.

Advocates for the homeless immediately likened the new site to a prison camp, while an area church proceeded with plans to open its own tent city despite the city's objections.

About 12 people did move to the city site Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said.

Others seemed ready to resist. They were preparing to stay at the 18th Street site, and possibly be arrested, or move to the Lakewood United Church of Christ on 54th Avenue S.

Parishioners there voted Sunday to open their own 30-tent encampment.

The Rev. Kim Wells said church officials may ask for a permit to run the tent city, but are not sure if a church even needs one.

"The church is about offering hospitality to people who need it," Wells said.

City officials say any property owner must obtain a permit before allowing people to sleep outdoors, meaning the church might face fines if it moves ahead.

The church chose to open its doors after speaking with the Rev. Bruce Wright, an advocate for those living in tents on 18th Street. Wright said there will not be enough room for everyone at the city site - a claim city officials deny.

Council member Jamie Bennett accused Wright and another advocate, Eric Rubin, of exploiting the church and the homeless as part of their own political agenda.

"They're just going to keep fighting us," Bennett said. "They're going to pick up their band of merry men and going to go somewhere else.

"This has to stop."

People who live near the church met Wednesday night to discuss how to fight the church's proposal, Bennett said.

Wells said the church has fielded fewer than 20 complaints.

"We've complied. We've tried to help," Bennett said. "Every politician is on the same page. This is all because Eric Rubin and Bruce (Wright) are going to lose their pre-eminence."

City officials and advocates both converged on the 18th Street encampment Wednesday afternoon to rally support for their own cause.

Advocates called the city's actions subterfuge.

A few people said they wouldn't mind moving.

Daniel Nelson was among the first to decide to move. "We just went through some problems here," Nelson said.

But several others seemed dug in.

"Over there is dirty and a lot of trouble," said Vera Blaine. "Here we watch out for each other."

People relaxed near their tents or napped on chaise longues while the city and advocates held their discussion.

"They're turning it into a permanent prisoner camp," said Wright, pointing to rules requiring residents to have their photographs made and to wear wristbands.

The City Council is expected today to ban tents on city streets and sleeping in the public right-of-way.

If both measures pass, city officials said the people would have to leave or face being arrested.

Business owners in the area have been demanding action for weeks.

"It's about ... time," said Brian Longstreth, a real estate agent active in the nearby neighborhood association.

by Aaron Sharockman who can be reached at

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The homeless struggle: Another showdown looms in St. Petersburg

Leaders of a group of homeless people living near downtown say they won't move from a sidewalk camp unless the city agrees to keep the tent city open indefinitely, among other demands.

The announcement, made at a Friday news conference at City Hall, could lay the groundwork for another showdown with police as early as next week.

It also brings a brief era of cooperation between the city and some advocates for the homeless to a grinding halt.

"We are asking them to put down in writing what they have agreed to verbally," said the Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries.

The city has been preparing to open a 90-day tent city on a vacant private lot so that people could move off the sidewalks near First Avenue N and 18th Street. At the end of 90 days, city officials say, they should be able to place residents in a more permanent setting, including a new shelter in Largo.

Though advocates initially agreed to the move, they now say it will not proceed without written protections.

Among them: The advocates and the homeless want equal say in how the camp is run. They also want to be able to bring new people into the tent city to replace people who are helped. And they don't want to be sent to the Largo shelter, to be built at the former site of the PSTA headquarters.

Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said the city never agreed to those terms, nor would it.

He said when the new site is ready, people will be asked to move.

And if they don't?

"Arrest is always an option, but it's not the first one we'll utilize," Davis said. "Reasonable people will move. If we're put in a position to have to take an enforcement action, I think people in the public will understand that."

City Council member Jamie Bennett, who has in the past has sided with the advocates, said patience throughout the city is wearing thin.

"This has gone on so long," Bennett said. "We're trying to be humane, but we're also trying to be adult."

The city made national news when police officers slashed the tents of a group of homeless people living on sidewalks in January.

Since then, officials have helped raise more than $1-million to provide shelter space and solicited the help of the federal government.

Mayor Rick Baker thought he had reached a suitable short-term compromise last week, when he agreed to open a tent shelter on the grounds of St. Vincent de Paul along Fourth Avenue N.

Now that agreement appears in jeopardy.

Speaking Friday, several tent city residents and advocates said the homeless would refuse to move unless the city agreed to sign a proposal guaranteeing a voice in decisionmaking.

The list of demands seeks to establish a long-term tent city run by those who live there, rather than a temporary settlement overseen by the city.

Eric Rubin, an advocate for the homeless, said Deputy Mayors Davis and Dave Metz had been most involved in the discussions. Rubin said there was concern in the homeless community that the city was enacting plans without enough feedback.

"We heard about some of their plans to move forward without enough input, and we wanted to put a stop to it," Rubin said.

Davis said Rubin, Wright and two tent city residents were invited to a meeting Wednesday, but did not attend.

Kathy Hines, a resident of the tent city on 18th Street near First Avenue N, said she was especially concerned about a city plan that might require residents of the new, city-sponsored tent city to wear armbands.

"I don't like that idea. ... I will not go with the wristbands requirement," Hines said. "A lot of these people have jobs and they're worried about losing their jobs if they have to wear wristbands all the time."

Without the support of Hines, the "mayor" of tent city, as well as advocates such as Wright and Eric Rubin, it is unlikely that the large group of homeless people living in tents will agree with the city's proposal.

The city is considering using armbands to help identify who belongs, officials said. Service providers would be required to wear them as well.

"We have to control it somehow," said Bennett. "You don't want to make it like a stalag or anything, but you have to understand who the residents are somehow, whether it's a tag or ID."

The city is racing against a clock to see whether the homeless will move.

The City Council will consider ordinances Thursday that would make the tent encampment on 18th Street and other places in the city illegal.

Davis knows if the ordinances are adopted, some residents will immediately demand they be enforced.

by Aaron Sharockman who can be reached at or 727 892-2273.
St. Petersburg Times

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Tackling the housing issue from all angles:
Blame it on the big, bad business community, frazzled politicians, migratory retirees, baby boomers, workers, families, a stable/unstable economy, personal choice, "unexpected" growth, lavish land uses and, above all, the weather.

Housing is the premium topic at the barbershop, coffee house and kitchen table and has spilled out into every area of community discourse. Unfortunately, there is a general attitude that tends to lump everything under "rooftops," thereby ignoring the very specialized nature of human living or working space. Certainly being adjacent to vacant, unused land is preferable to some folks, but so is productivity. Empty space may not gobble up resources or blow around in hurricanes, but it doesn't provide safe harbor for families, either.

When it comes to analyzing human needs, one size simply does not fit all, nor does one carefully aimed insulting remark cover every problem in meeting those needs. Lakewood Ranch, for example, is a place (and a nice one at that) and not the major cause of crowded roads. It's people, not places, people with vehicles, some of whom live in other areas, who create traffic.

Ironically, a lot of things occurred simultaneously. During the current spate of high population growth, the economy flourished but some housing efforts didn't. Risk-takers were rewarded. Many amateurs jumped into real estate investments with visions of flipping for the big bucks. Blaming builders and developers, political fingers were pointed in the wrong direction by people who had no compass. Actually, business professionals are our potential problem solvers, along with builders, growers, lawyers, bankers, retirees and citizens seeking a culture of ever expanding opportunity. "Just tell us what you want!" they cry, "and no surprises."

Here we were in 2004, a time of plenty, with a shortage of houses to accommodate our workforce as well as a dearth of transitional housing or shelter for the homeless. Reality emerged rapidly when the housing market dipped. It was over coffee one morning that Dr. Russ Kitching and I discussed the "big picture" with a thousand angles. The picture required focus. We needed something to jump-start public/private dialogue, to jump-start housing opportunities. Thus was born Jumpstart Foundation, a not-for-profit organization made possible through a stellar cast of charter members and board of directors. The modest brochure reads: "Jumpstart paves the way. During boom times or down times, a community must be prepared to endure over the long stretch. Economies are cyclical, markets are volatile. Needs are constant!"

Public/private membership is wide open and committed to increasing workforce housing inventory and accessibility, building trust in the business community, influencing sound government policy, eliminating blight and establishing an information forum. A conference including representatives from The Urban Land Institute is planned for May, according to Stan Stephens, Jumpstart chairman, and Cheri Coryea, Manatee County human services director. The subject will be "density." Look here for more information in the coming weeks.

We are all aware that "housing" cannot be separated from "high cost," including everything from taxes, impact fees, labor, building materials, insurance and yes, weather. But, good, productive meetings require focus and clarity of purpose, one headache at a time.

Pat Glass, just-retired from political office after almost three decades as Manatee County commissioner, writes every Wednesday to Herald readers about key issues and concerns with her unique insights. To reach her write to her c/o Bradenton Herald Metro Desk, 102 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton, FL 34205.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Homework, no home:
They fly under the radar in places few would think to look. At night, they lay their heads down in abandoned automobiles, in motel rooms, in spare corners in the homes of relatives. They are the estimated 1,500 children who are homeless yet enrolled in a Pinellas County public school. Thousands of others can be found in Hillsborough and Pasco schools, and in school districts across the state.
Curtis Reitmeyer is one of them. The 10-year-old will tell you the best hours of his day are the ones he spends at Skycrest Elementary School in Clearwater. The rest of the time, he's cooped up in a cramped motel room with his mom and dad, his older brother and two younger sisters.
Curtis says that sharing a bed with another family member makes it hard for him to fall asleep. Traffic along U.S. 19 and arguments among other motel dwellers sometimes wake him in the middle of the night.
And the utter disarray that results when six people spend months together in a small space makes it hard to keep track of things. Curtis says he missed a day of school recently because he couldn't find one of his shoes.
"At our apartment, they were always right next to each other," he says.
* * *
Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, describes childhood homelessness as pervasive, hidden and heartbreaking.
"It's pervasive in that it exists in every community across the country," Duffield says. "It's hidden in that families with children are less visible than other segments of the homeless population. It's heartbreaking because of the damaging effects homelessness has on every aspect of a child's development."
Under federal law, homeless advocates must identify and provide education services to homeless children. In Pinellas, the school district's homeless education assistance team includes two resource teachers, a social worker and a program coordinator.
Althea Hudson, the coordinator, has seen enough to know how important the smallest comforts can be to needy children.
"The things we take for granted," Hudson says, "are the things they cherish."
While people are quick to judge the homeless, there often are extenuating circumstances that land them in difficult situations. Jon Reitmeyer, Curtis' dad, acknowledges that he hasn't always managed his money well. But he is working two jobs to save for an apartment.
Unfortunately, his credit is bad, which makes landlords wary of leasing to him. So he hands over close to $2,000 a month to the motel, which makes it hard for the family to get ahead.
Debi Turner, principal at Blanton Elementary School, says she has seen many families like the Reitmeyers. At present, she knows of at least five Blanton families who live in shelters. Six to 10 are "doubled-up" with friends or relatives, and one family is living in a van.
"These kids have to come to school and perform, yet they have the weight of the world on them," Turner says.
Largo Middle School principal Fred Ulrich also has seen his share of homeless children. In most cases, Ulrich said, the families are doing everything they can to work toward a better life.
"It's part of our culture to think people are supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps," Ulrich says. "But if you've dealt with these issues, you see there's more to it than, 'Why don't you get a job?' "
The two school district employees who know this better than anyone are Janet Walker and Duane Kinnison, resource teachers with the homeless education assistance team. They encounter childhood homelessness every day as they travel from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.
They visit the county's family shelters to check on new arrivals and tell them their rights under federal law. They make sure schools know that homeless children can't be denied enrollment even if they are unable to show proof of age, residency or immunizations.
For Walker and Kinnison, the job often is very basic.
"Sometimes, the children just need some good old reassurance," Kinnison says. "You've got to be a friend to them."
* * *
Diamond Williams loved being in her school's gifted program. She cried when she found out she would have to leave it.
Diamond, 8, and her two older brothers now live with their mom, Martisha Haymon, at a Clearwater shelter. They've been there ever since Haymon, 36, a licensed child care worker, fled an abusive relationship in Georgia.
Haymon hopes the eight weeks the family is allowed to stay will be enough time for her to save the $3,100 she needs to move into an apartment. Meanwhile, her biggest worry is that her kids will fall behind in school. That's why she's glad the Pinellas school district has placed an after-school tutor at the shelter.
From 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Highland Lakes Elementary teacher Rachel Barnes works with as many as a dozen children in a small space set up like a classroom. Some, like Diamond, don't need much help. Others are so far behind Barnes wonders if they'll ever catch up.
"You would never know walking up to them that they're in this situation," Barnes says. "I'm sure there are kids in schools nobody knows are homeless."
The district's homeless education assistance team works hard to keep it that way. Sometimes that means providing school supplies, like pencils with good erasers. Other times, it means outfitting kids with everything from jeans to sneakers.
"They won't be name-brand," says Hudson, the coordinator. "But at least they'll fit."
Most school districts receive federal grant money to fund their homeless programs. Pinellas got $95,000 this year. Hillsborough got $125,000, and Pasco got $90,000. But 34 of Florida's 67 districts didn't get any funding at all.
That's because there's not enough money to go around.
Nationally, more than 900,000 children in kindergarten through 12th grade were identified as homeless last year. That's up 50 percent from the 2003-04 school year.
* * *
Emina Dizdarevic became homeless last summer when her mom got evicted from a low-income apartment complex in Largo. Emina's dad had left, and her mother, who was making $8-an-hour cleaning houses, couldn't afford rent.
Emina and her older brother, Adis, moved with their mom to a homeless shelter in Clearwater. But they weren't able to stay long enough for Bosnian-born Sada Dizdarevic, 34, to save money for another apartment. Since December, the family has been staying at Resurrection House, a long-term residential program for homeless families in St. Petersburg.
Emina, 10, hopes she'll have her own room some day in a big house. Maybe then, she thinks, she won't be embarrassed to invite her friends from school over to play.
"I know it's not my fault," she says. "But they might make fun of me now."
The toll of childhood homelessness can extend beyond academics, says Harry Brown, an associate superintendent for Pinellas schools who served as the district's first homeless resource teacher. Children like Emina often have a hard time making friends because their lives have been so chaotic, he says.
"It can be like an adult starting a new job every couple of weeks," Brown says.
That's another reason why the work of homeless liaisons within school districts is so vital, says Duffield, the National Association policy director. School often is the only place where homeless children can form stable relationships. School gives structure to their day and provides services, such as breakfast and lunch.
"Ultimately," Duffield says, "school is the place where they hopefully will gain the skills they need to prevent them from becoming homeless adults."
* Source: National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
An estimated 1.35-million children are homeless. That's 39 percent of the homeless population. Forty-two percent are under 5; 47 percent of homeless students do not attend a full year of school; they are twice as likely to have a learning disability; and three times more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems.*
Fast Facts:

State numbers
Florida ranked sixth in the number of homeless children and youth enrolled in public schools during the 2003-04 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, according to a U.S. Department of Education report to Congress. Here are the 10 states with the greatest reported numbers of homeless children and youth for that year. Because many homeless children go unreported, the actual numbers of homeless children are much greater.
California 142,554
Texas 137,858
New York 20,838
Pennsylvania 19,631
Louisiana 17,079
Florida 16,069
Arizona 14,597
Kentucky 13,640
Missouri 12,983
Ohio 12,482

by Donna Winchester St. Petersburg Times

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?