Sunday, May 03, 2009

To help homeless, first accurately count them:

A single mother of three rents a garage from another single mother of three living temporarily in a foreclosed home belonging to a third party. The house dweller fails to use the first woman's rent payment for the utility bill as promised and everyone is scrambling for new shelter.

It's an actual case in west Pasco with social workers now trying to assist the woman who made her rent payments in good faith. So here's a question: Are the kids considered homeless? Depends upon whom you ask.

A recently completed homeless count in Pasco County would say "no" because the youngsters had a roof over their heads on the day of the survey. Yet, the federal guidelines for serving homeless children in the public school district says "yes" because the families are doubled up in a makeshift living arrangement due to economic hardship.

Therein lies one of the problems confronting advocates, social services agencies and churches serving the homeless: counting heads. Successful passage of HB 597 in the Florida Legislature on Friday is an attempt to change that. Among the provisions of the bill is creation of a single definition of homeless to include people and families living in doubled-up homes or in motels.

The just-released results of the Pasco coalitions's count illustrates the problematic definitions. On Jan. 28, volunteers calculated 4,527 people in Pasco were homeless, an 11 percent increase over a year ago. But the same survey identified just 4 percent, or 181 people, as children. The state average is 21 percent and last year's Pasco survey calculated that 1,400 children in Pasco, or 35 percent of the total count, had no place to call home.

All indications are the number of children was undercounted this year. Pasco School District social workers report helping more than 1,800 homeless children with enrollment this school year, including providing assistance obtaining supplies, clothing and transportation. Many of the children reside in doubled-up households or in motels.

Extrapolation of the district numbers with the Jan. 28 single-day count would push the county's homeless population to more than 6,100 people, or a nearly 50 percent increase over a year ago. It's an eye-opening jump attributable to a recession, high unemployment and increasing foreclosures. Nearly two-thirds of Pasco's 5,000 foreclosure cases involved primary residences.

Why does it matter? Because the community, as it maps a 10-year plan to assist the homeless, needs an accurate accounting of the far-reaching problem. Too often the public perception of Pasco's homeless is defined by a rousted encampment in the woods or a panhandler seeking beer money on a street corner. Children are an afterthought.

Ignoring the problem is unrealistic. It's too expensive and results in higher hospitalization and public safety costs to the public and diminished educational opportunities for children. Multiple studies show the annual cost of feeding, incarcerating and proving health care to a chronically homeless person is tens of thousands of dollars higher than a comprehensive assistance program. Just think of the public safety costs accumulated this week when Pasco deputies evicted a homeless encampment from private property in Hudson and investigated a stabbing involving a homeless suspect in Land O'Lakes.

While advocates continue devising the 10-year plan for homeless intervention, one church in Holiday isn't waiting for the written document. The Community United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Dan Campbell doubles as pastor and president of the Homeless Coalition of Pasco, is closing in June. It will reopen as a Joining Hands Community Mission Inc., a one-stop resource center and shelter to help homeless families with public assistance, employment searches and other tasks.

It's a commendable mission. The unprecedented and much-needed community effort in west Pasco will allow people to progress from an emergency shelter to transitional housing to a permanent home — the true aim of any homeless program.

An editorial from the St. Petesburg Times Published Saturday, May 2, 2009

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