Saturday, December 22, 2007

Shelters fill up as housing jobs drop

Construction workers, carpenters, real estate agents and even mortgage brokers - those who once profited from the now-deflated housing boom - are now out of work and seeking public assistance.

Officials with the Community Coalition on Homelessness for Manatee County say they are getting a growing number of calls for help from those connected with the housing boom who have either lost their homes or are at risk of foreclosure.

Unfortunately, agencies that help those at risk - the homelessness coalition, Manatee Community Action Agency and the Salvation Army - ran out of funds to provide rental and mortgage assistance by summer's end, said Executive Director Adell Erozer.

Worse yet, those same agencies do not expect to get any money until after the first of the year - and, even then, they have been given no date when the funds will arrive.

Manatee schools have been affected by the increasing number of homeless, said Deb Bailey, of Project Heart, the school district's program to help homeless students. Bailey identified a record 984 children without permanent shelter in just the first three months of the school year, as compared to 2,200 students counted for the entire 2006-07 school year.

"We've always had chronic homeless, but this year it's different," Bailey said. "This year the families who need help are the ones who 12 months ago had jobs, cars, apartments or houses, but now they are unemployed and have lost everything. The crisis affects just about anybody connected with the housing industry."

Shelters are overflowing, the Salvation Army reports. Manatee and Sarasota shelters provided a haven for nearly 5,000 people in October alone, according to a computerized database for tracking services provided to the homeless and those at risk.

Soup kitchens in the bicounty area served a record 20,668 meals, and many of those standing in line have never had to ask for assistance before, said Mary DeLazzer, who oversees Our Daily Bread's kitchen.

DeLazzer notices big changes from last year. "I always look at the feet of people standing in line," she said. "Now I see mostly work boots - construction workers without jobs who have had to pawn their tools just to get by."

Here is a snapshot of several local agencies that are struggling to stretch limited resources to help those in need.

Project Heart/

Manatee school district

Project Heart assists families and students who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Tutoring, school supplies, case management, referrals for services in the community and counseling are offered at several locations within the school district.

The goal is to help homeless students enroll and remain in the same school throughout the school year.

Bailey projects the number of homeless students will be even higher this school year than last year's 2,200, as figures are already reaching the halfway mark of last year's total.

Hardest hit among the families in need are parents who recently lost their jobs and are now caught in the gap between applying and receiving assistance from programs like Medicaid and rental assistance. Those delays often stretch over several months. "These families need help with school supplies, school uniforms and medicines their children need," Bailey said.

Project Heart is trying to address transportation problems so children from families who have lost their homes and are now living in different school zones can remain in the same school.

But Project Heart is having budget problems of its own. In the previous school year, Bailey had received an $85,000 federal grant to help students and struggling families. This year, she received only $68,000 after federal budget cuts.

"The community's safety net is broken," Bailey said. "It's very sad to tell families, 'I'm sorry, I can't help,' when funds run out . . . especially when they have little kids with them, wondering where they are going to sleep tonight. Then it breaks my heart."

Salvation Army of Bradenton

Joanell Greubel, director of the Family Lodge, which provides temporary housing for women and children, could help only one out of every six people who sought shelter in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30.

"Of those 1,577, we only had space for 279 women and children," said Greubel. "There was no place else for them to go."

HOPE Family Services, the other shelter in Manatee County that receives women and children, takes in only victims of domestic abuse.

"That means the families we had to turn away had to leave town and possibly their jobs to seek shelter elsewhere," Greubel said. "And shelters in surrounding counties are also full."

Because the Salvation Army does not want to turn women and children out onto the streets until and unless they have a safe place to go, the shelter's turnover is slower than it was in years past, Greubel reports.

She also has found people need longer-term assistance because wages have remained stagnant while the cost of living has increased dramatically.

Greubel is seeing an increase in the numbers of elderly seeking shelter, including her most recent - an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer's who was evicted from her apartment.

A similar situation exists in the Salvation Army's men's shelter. "Our meals have increased on average about 400 a month from last year and our stays increased about 400 a night," director Ed Wickman said.

Maj. Robert Pfeiffer, the Salvation Army's director of social services, predicts those numbers are going to escalate.

"We are going to see more homeless and more children in the street as foreclosures increase," Pfeiffer said. "We are reaching a critical melting point in the social structure in this country. Social-service agencies that provide assistance are being inundated."

United Way 211 of Manasota Inc.

Functioning similar to 911 for emergencies, the 211 phone line in Manatee and Sarasota counties refers callers in need of help to social agencies.

More than 6,000 people called 211 in October asking for help, according to agency reports. Of those calls, 2,318 needed financial assistance. Food requests numbered 3,428.

More people have called needing rental deposit money, particularly from workers in the construction, real estate, food service and now retail and health care industries, according to data provided by Ben Kunkel, with Manasota 211.

Community Coalition on Homelessness

The Open Door, a resource center for the homeless run by the coalition, reports 98 clients served - many with repeat visits - in October, nearly double the number of those who sought help in October 2006.

While the perception still persists that most homeless are single men with substance abuse or mental health problems, families in need are the fastest-growing segment of Manatee County's homeless population, said director Erozer.

The coalition has recently published "The Community Resources Directory of Homeless Services," a 44-page booklet listing regional resources in Manatee, Sarasota and neighboring counties. Copies are available at the Community Coalition on Homelessness, 202 13th Ave. E., Bradenton. The guide is also available in Spanish.

Our Daily Bread

DeLazzer has a tiny desk in her pantry where she stores all of the donated food and supplies the soup kitchen buys for 18 cents a pound from Meals on Wheels PLUS Food Bank.

A new shipment had just arrived last week and the shelves were packed with canned goods, bags of beans, rice and noodles.

"In three days' time, all of this will be gone except for that big jar of hot peppers," said DeLazzer, who is now serving more than 7,000 meals a month. During the summer months, the count topped 8,000. It's all she can do to keep the shelves full.

"It's not just food we need, we need money, as well, to buy toilet paper, napkins, plastic utensils, dish soap, disinfectants and floor cleaners," she said.

DeLazzer is thankful for contributions that come through the door, but she said she can stretch monetary contributions further than a can of food.

She picked up a can of salmon. "This costs $2.90 in the store but with that same amount of money, I can buy more than 15 pounds of food from the food bank. The food is going out of here like you wouldn't believe."

Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness

Richard Martin, executive director, sees little relief on the horizon.

"Many people who were in the workforce last year and then lost their jobs have reached the end of the unemployment checks," Martin said. "They are now facing eviction or foreclosure because they cannot find employment."

The Suncoast Partnership is a nonprofit agency that coordinates homeless outreach and services in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Day labor, once a fall-back option for many without work, has dried up, Martin said. The demand for day labor is less than half what it was this time last year. "Everything is tied to the decline of the housing industry," he added.

Most agencies say they need emergency funding. "The funds dribble in in drips and drabs after the first of the year," Martin said. "We are strapped by lack of resources. People who once contributed to the United Way are now in need of the United Way. This is all moving so fast it is hard to pin down.

"We need an angel."

By DONNA WRIGHT Bradenton Herald November 25, 2007

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