The Many Faces of Homelessness
Photo/Text by Donna Malloy
You can look the other way, but they're still there; the homeless. On any given day, you can see the homeless gathered at Coachman Park outside of the Clearwater Public Library or sitting on a Cleveland Street bench in downtown Clearwater.
Acknowledging their growing numbers, President Bush, in 2005, mandated every city in America to devise a 10 year homeless plan; to prioritize and reduce homelessness. The ultimate goal of the plan is to find adequate housing for the homeless.
In conjunction with the ten year plan, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires a Point-in-Time (PIT) count of homeless persons across the country on the last seven days of January each year. Since 1991, the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless has coordinated this census taking task. The data is then used to help service providers, community leaders and elected officials make decisions regarding the growing needs of the homeless; and ultimately achieving their goal.
The data also helps to dispel false notions about homelessness. " the homeless census reveals that the face of homelessness now includes more families with children, non-traditional family types and a greater number of working poor households," stated Sarah Snyder, the Coalition's Executive Director.
The face of homelessness is also aging; even though 59% of the homeless are in their thirties and forties, there has been an increase in the elderly street homeless in recent years. In addition, veterans, including veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, make up 24% of the homeless, while white males (72%) make up the majority of the homeless. And 68% of the homeless have at least one disability (medical, mental/emotional, developmental, HIV/AIDS, substance abuse (drugs and alcohol).
Snyder continued: "Forty percent of our homeless are working but can't afford to pay rent." Affordable housing in Clearwater has in recent years been replaced with more expensive, new construction. In Pinellas County "we're short approximately 1,000 beds per night" stated Snyder. Unfortunately, "regulatory barriers and the lack of affordable housing" are stagnating the city's efforts, according to city of Clearwater Councilman John Doran, to provide affordable housing.
On any given day, "over 5,000 county residents are at risk," according to Sarah Snyder. "They are one day away from being homeless;" not one paycheck.
On January 29th, 2007, the PIT homeless count tabulated 5,195 homeless men, women and children; a 10% increase from the previous year. In 2008, the annual homeless count was "slightly higher" according to Snyder. "We're also seeing a slightly northern trend of the homeless gravitating to Clearwater from St. Petersburg." The homeless use their legs and the Pinellas Trail, a modern day underground railroad of sorts, to relocate from St. Petersburg to Clearwater.
One reason for their migration out of St. Petersburg is the city's recently passed ordinances, making it more difficult for the homeless to co-exist in the city. The new ordinances state: "It shall be unlawful for any person to sleep in or on a public sidewalk . unlawful for any person to place, use or occupy any tent .. and unlawful to panhandle."
The city of Clearwater has one ordinance preventing anyone from begging by intimidation: Sec. 21.17:
You may wonder if Florida's warm climate attracts the homeless to our area, but statistics show that 35% of Pinellas County's homeless were born here, and 50% have lived here for over five years. That 50% includes Dale, a fifty-one-year-old, now homeless male, who moved from Tennessee to north Clearwater Beach with a promise of a job in the auto body field. Dale rented an apartment on Bay Esplanade in north Clearwater Beach and life was good until he was laid off from work.
Dale is able to work, and sometimes works "a few days temp labor" for a little "extra cash;" extra cash for cigarettes and beer. "We don't need any money. Every morning we're fed at St. Vincent de Paul; you can go to CHIPS on Cleveland Street and shower and shave every day, we get free medical supplies from the mobile medical unit, and if we need a change of clothes we can get a clothes voucher from St. Vincent de Paul and they'll also pay for one prescription per year.
With the economy going to hell, it doesn't pay to work; I'm tired of struggling for nothing." Dale continued. "And things have changed; you can't even make money panhandling anymore. Used to be I could make $27 in three hours outside of Largo Mall; I only made $5 in front of Clearwater Mall after three hours the other day by the way, do you have a dollar?
Sitting on the bench next to Dale is his friend Gary, who has been homeless for the last three years. Before that, Gary was living with and working for his boss who owns an air conditioning business. But Gary didn't like the set-up and quit.
"How much money do you have in your pocket?"
"Forty-five cents" Gary replied.
Next, nameless, homeless, former registered nurse I'll call Kentucky stopped by to chat and hands Gary a cigarette. Kentucky became homeless after she was hospitalized and lost her nursing job.
She has filed for SSD which "may take six months to a year." In the meantime, Kentucky will wait.
"See, I didn't even have to ask; she just knows I don't have any cigarettes. We all look out for each other" smiled Gary.
"Whose side are you one?" Kentucky asked.
"What do you do all day; don't you get bored?" I asked.
"No, we can go to the library all day" answered Dale.
But in the long run, everything comes with a price. For Dale, Gary and Kentucky, although they are able to relax all day and joke with their friends, when the sun goes down, they must find a sheltered place to sleep. What they are not protected from are mosquitoes, cockroaches and worst of all, each other.
"This is the worst place I've seen in the country where they steal from each other" stated Dale.
"Yeah, last night they stole my backpack with all my clothes in it" stated Gary.
One guy even had his dirty laundry stolen" stated Gary as he shakes his head in disbelief.
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