To the good people of Sarasota, I’ve waited long enough. From what I’ve read in the Herald Tribune’s article (July 8, 2014), you are stumbling in a very important responsibility—how to help homeless families in your county.
I used to live in Sarasota, and I’ve returned many times, rekindling fond memories of this delightful area. I’ve cringed as I’ve followed your struggles to cope with a significant homelessness population. I could tell it wasn’t going well, but I waited to see what would happen. This latest account alarms me.
I've worked with homeless families for 3 decades, including 15 years running volunteer-based shelters; spent time in other shelters nationwide; chronicled lives of homeless families/youth in documentary films; wrote a reader-friendly book about homelessness; advocated for improved state and federal policies; addressed countless audiences nationwide on the topic; and, most importantly, spent a lot of time listening and observing homeless families. I am qualified to offer opinions.
I’ll focus on families, a vulnerable population that will benefit by the right steps. Here’s a starting list of concerns to be addressed:
HIGH MOBILITY—a devastating state of mind for those in stress. Many families without homes have been shuffling around for years, with much uncertainty as to what’s going to happen. That’s hard on kids and adults.
CAPACITY—how many families can be served at the emergency shelter(s)? I suspect you’re underestimating, based on the number of families identified by the county schools’ count. While you can’t help every family, just getting the tip of the iceberg might not be most effective. Over 1,200 homeless students have been identified, a ghastly number not including babies and toddlers or parents.
STABILITY—the time needed to get back on one’s feet varies, but certainly is more than 2-6 weeks, as proposed by the plan to move families from their (up to) week at the emergency shelter into one of five homes. Again, families are devastated by high mobility. What they need is stability, not a plan to shuffle them from place to place.
FAMILY PROMISE—a tremendous family shelter program, but they have limits. They’re highly mobile, shifting week by week, open only at night. Put yourself in place of the family. Think of the logistics. And this program is dependent on significant support from the community, especially people of faith. They’ll need sites willing/able to host a handful of families a week at a time. Families won’t automatically become economically solvent, and FP has a time limit, 90-days, a very short time to regain stability.
HARVEST HOUSE—a commendable, faith-based program that focuses on addictions. For all the good they can do, it’s not a program for every family. Their religious focus might be hard for some families to adapt to, for a variety of legitimate reasons. And their capacity is quite limited.
TRAUMA—many homeless families have experienced a tremendous amount of trauma that shapes their lives and impedes their ability to comply with standard shelter approaches to ending homelessness. A recent report points to this overlooked fact. Addressing the multitude of challenges families experience requires the work of patient, knowledgable professionals and the availability of significant resources.
HOUSING OPTIONS—because of significant cutbacks in federal housing assistance programs, foreclosures, bankruptcies, rising rents, and more, it’s hard for families with limited income to find decent housing. This sobering housing affordability calculator will confirm what thousands of Sarasota County residents know.
REALITY—no one can deny the devastation of the past 8+ years of economic turmoil. Jobs paying living wages are scarce, belts are tightened squeezing out the vulnerable, those with even minor credit or legal issues are passed over in job or housing searches, and those finding themselves on the edge of—or in—homelessness are often treated as lepers.
You’ve paid a consultant plenty of money to advise your community. The above issues don’t seem to have been addressed adequately. Let’s see what happens next. But put yourselves in the place of families needing help. How much longer can they hang on?