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Child homelessness program proves highly effective

Mark Parker



Lakewood Elementary students eat lunch outside. It is one of seven schools listed in a "Transformation Zone." Photo by Mark Parker.

According to Pinellas County Schools (PCS) data, over 4,000 children go without a home in Pinellas County, with a significant portion attending South St. Petersburg schools.

While 73% live with other families or in hotels, Theresa Jones, manager of veterans, homeless and social services, said that others “may be living in a place not meant for human habitation.” However, the Family Works program, adopted by city leaders as a pilot in 2020 and now administered by Directions for Living, has served 302 people and housed 93 kids during FY22 alone.

City council members heard a report on Family Works’ effectiveness during Thursday’s Youth and Family Services Committee meeting. Due to its widespread success, officials are expanding the program throughout the county. PCS provides referrals to Directions through its Helping Educate All in Transition (HEAT) team, which works closely with the area’s most vulnerable populations and school social workers.

Heather King, division director for Directions, began the presentation by calling St. Petersburg administrators and council members leaders in the fight to reduce childhood homelessness.

“This project is working,” said King. “It’s been incredibly successful and a huge value-add to the community. We actually have an expansion project currently in the works where we’ve broken off and kind of replicated the model that you guys were instrumental in designing.”

A graphic showing the program’s reach during FY22. Screengrab.

The initiative focuses on schools deemed “transformation zones” in the county. St. Pete is home to seven of the 15 the school board identified.

King relayed that three intensive care managers, a supervisor and a facilitator work closely with New Heights, Lakewood, Campbell Park, Maximo, Melrose and Fairmount Park Elementary School. John Hopkins is the only middle school.

Jones later clarified that former City Councilmember Steve Kornell chose those schools in 2019 following a series of Tampa Bay Times articles highlighting achievement gaps and struggles within the surrounding communities. “They were, at that time, not called transformational schools,” said Jones.

“Unfortunately, we referred to them as failure factories.”

City Council approved $275,000 in funding for a pilot program in March 2020, which the Homeless Leadership Alliance (HLA) of Pinellas implemented. The HLA subsequently selected Direction for Living to administer the program.

Following the success of the pilot’s second year, administrators and organizers hope to extend the program into the future.

“There’s an overwhelming number of families that really need this help, community-wide,” said King. “Our shelter prioritization list now has about 110 families that are living unsheltered. So, when we get an influx of referrals when we went forward with our expansion, we went with elementary school children first.”

The second prioritization tier, explained King, is any family living in a car or a place unfit for human habitation.

Councilmember Richie Floyd, a former educator, noted his wife is still a teacher and said most of her students struggle to secure housing. He asked what the plan was moving forward for the city to help provide services for everyone. King relayed that funding does not increase with the number of families and children in need.

“The harsh reality is that you could double your (investment), and the county could quadruple theirs, and maybe we could serve everyone,” said Rachel Smith, COO for Directions.

Amy Foster, HLA Cand neighborhood affairs administrator, said a good government is a hotbed of experimentation and innovation. She explained that a small city investment in the program significantly impacted the lives of local children and proved that secure housing leads to better attendance and grades.

Foster relayed that following the program’s early success in St. Petersburg, Pinellas officials recently appropriated $1.5 million in funding to expand Family Works throughout the county.

A graphic highlighting academic performance following stable housing. Screengrab.

PCS data for FY22 states that 100% of rehoused families remain there a year later, and 76% of referrals participate in the program until they obtain housing. Additionally, academic performance increased by 80%, with 33.3% of students improving a letter grade after receiving stable housing and 15.4% improving by two letter grades.

School attendance increased by 84% post-intervention.

However, in addition to funding, challenges remain. Data shows that 24% of referrals remain housing unstable due to rent prices, prior evictions and poor credit. Another 24% refused services due to arrest records and the program’s intensity.

“When we’re working with working with families, we kind of joke that we move in with them because we’re at their houses so much,” said King.

Councilmember Copley Gerdes credited the prior city council for implementing the program a called it “ridiculously important work.” Other than doubling funding, he asked what they could do to help.

Council members recently approved $260,000 for the Family Works program in the FY23 budget. Jones encouraged them to continue advocating for more funding through local nonprofits and the state legislature.

For more information on Directions for Living, visit the website here.






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1 Comment

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    Shirley Hayes

    October 16, 2022at8:11 am

    This article gives hope but shows that more help is needed. I pray that Social clubs, Sororities,Fraternities and other groups will step up and donate, hold fund raisers and do what they can to support this initiative. Our children Need Us.

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