They’re often unnoticed, the children waiting for school buses in front of cheap hotels and motels that serve as temporary quarters for homeless families. Others down on their luck seek respite with relatives and friends, find sanctuary in homeless shelters, or sleep in cars parked at your neighborhood Walmart and elsewhere.
I chatted with a young mother with six children this week who was grateful that a St. Petersburg shelter took them in when there was nowhere else to go. She left Alabama last March to be close to family, but was forced to move from her sister’s rented house when the landlord got wind of their living arrangement.
Fortunately, Oriel Joyce and her children didn’t end up on the street. They were taken in by the St. Petersburg Free Clinic’s Family Residence, a short-term shelter that helps families get on their feet. St. Vincent de Paul CARES then helped them find and settle into a three-bedroom home, provided utility and rental deposits and ongoing monthly financial assistance to ensure their stability.
Joyce, who works full time at a manufacturing plant, is effusive in her praise: “They helped me out with food, clothing for the kids. Pots, pans, brooms, curtains. They provided a bed for me. They provided the mattress. All the bedding.”
Now, after months of precarious living, her children are thriving and happy. One of her four daughters, Claresha, 13, is a straight-A student. A son with speech problems is improving.
Still, for the 34-year-old, it’s been “a rough road.”
As of December, the Pinellas County School District recorded 2,225 homeless students, 387 living in hotels and motels, 260 in shelters, and 47 in cars and places considered inhabitable, such as homes without running water. Another 1,531 shared homes with others.
Of the more than 2,000 homeless children, 949 were Black, 761 white, and 345 Hispanic.
I asked Ray Tampa, a former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch and a retired educator, for his reaction to the high number of homeless Black students. “With the socio-economic status of Blacks, I’m not so surprised by those numbers,” he said. “This pandemic is going to put more of us on the street.”
St. Vincent de Paul, which Joyce couldn’t stop praising, will be able to increase the number of homeless families it helps over the next two years. News that the agency was awarded a $5 million grant – the largest private donation in its history – from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund, was announced before Christmas from the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall.
The grant will be used by St. Vincent de Paul for its No Child Left Outside project, a plan to house about 1,000 children and their families in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The agency will collaborate with the Pinellas County Schools, the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative and the Hillsborough County Public Schools to bring the effort to fruition.
While St. Vincent de Paul has long helped to house families, individuals and veterans – most recently moving 564 households into permanent housing since the beginning of the pandemic — the No Child Left Outside project will focus on families who weren’t previously eligible for such assistance. Specifically, the Bezos money will assist families with children teetering on the brink of homelessness.
“The hope is to allow us to build a bridge to families to get assistance that don’t want to go to a shelter … to reach people we haven’t been able to reach before,” Michael Raposa, St. Vincent de Paul’s CEO, said this week.
“The innovation in this is the fact that we are going to be able to help a larger amount of people and prevent them from going through the trauma of being on the street. We should be able to handle rent and utility deposits and then rent and utilities until they are able to be sustainable.”
Dr. Christine Cantrell knows well the effects of homelessness on students. She wrote a thesis on the topic and holds the lengthy title of Homeless Liaison and HEAT (Helping Educate All in Transition) Grant Program Monitor for Pinellas County Schools.
“We’re the education side of the homeless issue,” she said.
The program works with area shelters to assist children and their families and offers a wide range of services that span the compassionate and the practical. Families are reassured that their children can remain at their regular schools or attend a zoned school near their shelter or other temporary home.
School buses make stops at hotels and motels up and down U.S. 19. Using the HEAT grant, the district is able to supply bus passes and buys gas cards for parents so they can take their children to school until a bus route is set up. The program also makes sure children have school uniforms through the Clothes To Kids organization and provides gift cards for items such as hygiene and ethnic hair products. Secondary school children have access to tutors at two shelters.
Cantrell referred to homelessness as “a traumatic stress.” There’s a sense of loss and security. Loss of home can mean loss of friends, pets and more, she said.
Children in homeless situations – Cantrell says the more compassionate term is “in transition” – are prone to more ear and respiratory infections, gastrointestinal problems and mental health and behavioral issues than their peers with permanent homes.
When a child is acting out in the classroom, it might be, “because they are hungry, or because they don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night,” she said.
Tampa, who retired as a principal at Lakewood Elementary School in 2004, made similar observations. “A lot of those kids, they didn’t get a good night’s sleep, they may not have eaten anything,” he said. “They may not have seen their parents, because the parents are out trying to find work, resources.”
He and his staff were attentive to their homeless students, Tampa said. “We just tried to be sensitive to their concerns, with the hope of making them feel as comfortable as possible.”
The Bezos grant will enable St. Vincent de Paul to house many more families, Cantrell observed, and “truly help them feel that sense of normalcy.”
Like Joyce and her family. “They don’t only help you get on your feet, they encourage you,” she said of the staff at St. Vincent de Paul. “They got me out of that funk. Me and my kids even gave them a Christmas card. We call them our angels, because at the end of the day, they are doing God’s work. It’s just a blessing.”
Uplifting words for unsettling times.