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At the table: Homelessness in St. Pete

Mark Parker



A homeless person asked Alexia Morrison (left), CEO of Reach St. Pete, for hygiene products and prayer. Photo provided.

Where are we going, and how will we get there? As a community, we’re constantly seeking the optimal balance between the needs we have and the needs we serve. And through discussion, we arrive at solutions. The At the Table series is for sharing our intention, ideas and experiences to help us align and work better – together.

Part six in a series

Addressing homelessness requires a better understanding of the problem, collaboration from institutional officials and systemic change; that is a recurring theme in this series, and one repeated by two local nonprofit leaders.

Most experts believe the problem is growing. Rampant redevelopment, soaring housing costs and inflation now put the local middle class at risk of losing their homes and create an additional strain on resources – which are already insufficient to meet the community’s needs.

As such, average citizens and government, school, health, criminal justice and nonprofit officials must all come together and work collaboratively to address the problem before it worsens.

A homeless person occupies a bench in St. Petersburg’s Edge District. Photo by Mark Parker.

“It’s going to require all of us to shift our thinking a little bit and to open our pockets,” said Dr. Monica Alesnik, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance (HLA). “And really do that proverbial out-of-the-box thinking that we all talk about, but we don’t necessarily do.

“We’re an amazingly smart nation, but look at the problem that we have.”

The HLA and over 300 volunteers recently completed the latest Point in Time Count. The annual event provides a snapshot of Pinellas County’s homeless residents and is a federal funding requirement. The survey is also critical to understanding and meeting the community’s needs.

Alesnik called the undertaking humbling and a reminder of “why we do what we do.” While she declined to speculate on the results, Alesnik stated that 140 families languish on her shelter waiting list.

“That means 140 families in Pinellas County were sleeping on the street, in their car or someplace that was not a home,” she added. “The individuals that don’t have homes right now are our neighbors, who face significant challenges in their lives or some societal issue.”

A homeless person sleeps on a bench during holiday events at St. Petersburg’s waterfront parks. Photo by Mark Parker.

Regarding that waitlist, Alesnik relayed the significant hardship her organization faces with finding safe, sustainable and affordable housing for clients in the area. She said some local landlords help, and one landlord even reaches out when a space opens. However, she stressed, that’s not the norm.

Developers are now looking to the county’s mobile home parks for their “higher end” projects, and Alesnik bluntly stated there is not enough affordable housing to meet the need. She declined to opine on if local governments should preemptively buy those facilities.

Like many local leaders, Alesnik said government officials are “doing a fine job.” She, also like many others, believes everyone could work harder to find solutions. She added that the community is “very caring,” but “people have a hard time wrapping themselves around this issue.”

Alexia Morrison experienced homelessness as a teen. She now leads Reach St. Pete, a nonprofit that serves the unsheltered and people on the verge of losing their homes.

Morrison, 28, said her organization focuses on making its resources and services more accessible and equitable. Her motto is “clear is kind,” and Morrison noted people in vulnerable situations often find attaining assistance complex and confusing.

Prevention is critical, Morrison said, and Reach St. Pete provides rental and mortgage assistance. It will also pay utility bills for people willing to take in the homeless.

“It’s like a 33% increase in people who are calling our phone line, who are sleeping in their cars or right on the cusp of homelessness,” she said. “So, if we could find a way to allocate more funds for preventative efforts – I think in the long run – it would really save the city a lot of money.”

In addition, she said 50% of the people who need assistance to stay in their homes have employment. Some work multiple jobs.

Morrison relayed that many of Reach’s clients are families doing everything they can to stay afloat, but their pay doesn’t increase alongside costs.

While researching solutions, Morrison found that successful cities employ a “cross-sector” approach. She noted that concerned citizens, first responders and healthcare, religious and nonprofit officials all interact with the homeless but typically do not operate under one system.

A large group of homeless people gather along Mirror Lake Drive in St. Petersburg on Saturday mornings for a hot breakfast, clothes and camaraderie. Photo by Mark Parker.

Morrison would like to see a standardized, easy-to-use platform to coordinate efforts. She said it is no one’s fault, but circumstances dictate that they triage separately.

“And our sectors are often overworked people who are underpaid and strapped for time and resources,” explained Morrison. “But if we could really get serious about organizing a cross-sector approach when it comes to homelessness – I think that’s one of the first things that’s super important.”

She said the platform should include real-time data that shows an organization’s available funding and shelter openings. It could also include pertinent information about encounters and individual needs, and Morrison added that average citizens should also have access.

Morrison noted that local leaders, in previous parts of this series, bemoaned a lack of land. While she stressed that housing is not her area of expertise, Morrison believes that government officials should be more “open-minded to what innovation can look like in our current landscape.”

“If we as a city could truly champion collaboration over competition, then I think maybe we could get closer to some innovative solutions.”

Alesnik expressed her staunch belief that every citizen can also make a difference. Whether it is a kid helping another child learn how to read, a grandma offering blankets or someone operating a food pantry out of their car, she said, “we all have the capacity to do something great in this country.”

“We just have to continue trying,” Alesnik said. “We can’t give up.”

This is the final chapter in a six-part series. 

Read Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here and Part Five here

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