Back in 2019, former St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell fervently pursued a pilot program to help homeless children at seven of the city’s schools.
Since then, the program has helped dozens of children and their families. But the alarming situation of children and their families living in cars, the woods, shelters, cheap and at times unsafe motels and hotels, or even in self-storage units, persists.
As of Thursday, the Pinellas County School District counted 3,659 homeless students. That’s up from the 3,554 reported in this column a week ago, before the district scrambled to save a mom and her three children – ages 7, 4 and 3 months – from being forced to spend the night on the street.
Kornell, who returned to his job as a school social worker when his term on the City Council ended, is grateful that the program he initiated is still in place, but furious it’s still so badly needed.
“I don’t think the community is really grasping the situation,” he said.
“The program has been very effective. Where we need to do better in finding more housing units. The school system is not responsible for building housing. The community needs to step up and decide, do we really care about homeless kids. It’s a stain on all of us. We should stand up and not let this happen. We should treat this like a crisis.”
He’s not criticizing social service agencies, he emphasized, just trying to get the attention of the broader community.
The fact is, individuals, corporations, congregations, students and even school district employees have been pitching in to help, but it’s not enough. And earlier this month, appearing before the County Commission, Amy Foster, CEO of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, spoke of ongoing efforts by the area’s more than 85 social service agencies to combat the homeless problem.
It might appear intractable, but Foster had good news to share on Jan. 11.
She told County Commissioners that overall homelessness in Pinellas was down 8 percent in 2019-2020 and 43 percent over the past 10 years. But while she reported other positive news, the former St. Petersburg City Council member didn’t avoid bringing attention to the predicament of poor Pinellas County families or to the disproportionately high number of African Americans who find themselves among the homeless.
“We talk a lot about family homelessness. We worry about our babies sleeping in cars,” she said, going on to thank Commissioner Karen Seel for her advocacy that helped to expand the number of family shelter beds.
But, Foster added, “We still don’t have enough.”
Going forward, the Homeless Leadership Alliance, she said, will be “laser-focused” on addressing the high number of Black people who are homeless. “Our population, we should have anywhere between 11 and 17 percent of African Americans showing up in the homeless system. Instead, here in Pinellas County, it’s 40 percent.”
It seems to follow that the Pinellas County School District would reflect similar findings. Black students make up 19 percent of the school district’s population, but 40 percent of those who are homeless.
Back in 2019, when Kornell worked with others to convince St. Petersburg to put money into a pilot program to serve seven “transformation zone” schools, he saw the situation as dire.
“The numbers were astounding. Twenty percent of the Maximo Elementary student population was considered homeless. It’s not surprising that if you’re not able to have a stable home that you may not be your very best at school,” he said.
“Some kids overcome it, but some don’t and it’s not fair to expect a child to perform well at school when they don’t know where they are going to be living night-to-night. There are too many homeless children and not enough resources going into helping them. Shame on us for some of the things we do with the money at local, state and federal levels … Our community needs to step up. We fund other things. Why not do some prevention?”
Some of that is happening. Foster reported a correlation between increased investment in prevention and diversion efforts and a drop in the number of newly homeless.
“The more we invest in preventing homelessness, the more we can keep people housed, children in the schools they attend and families working,” she told the County Commission.
The pilot program inspired by Kornell was seeded with $275,000, a proverbial drop in the bucket. He said it was never expected that the sum would solve the problem, but that the community “would step forward with more resources.”
The city funds were administered through the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, which put out a request for proposals and awarded the project to Directions for Living.
The agency’s Family Works program was launched at the seven St. Petersburg schools and expanded with the help of a grant from Pinellas County to some north county schools. April Lott, president and CEO of Directions for Living, said the program stabilized about 150 students with affordable housing in two years.
At present, though, the program is paused in north county. Pinellas County did not fund that part of the program in this year’s social action awards, Lott said.
The school district has applied for funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, designated for homeless children and youth, that would allow Directions for Living to continue the program for two more years across the county.
The way it works is that the school district makes referrals to the agency, which offers wraparound services for the entire family, including counseling, as they work toward sustainable housing, explained Dr. Christine Cantrell, liaison for the district’s HEAT (Helping Educate All in Transition) program.
Wednesday was “a hair-on-fire day,” she said, with Directions for Living urgently called as soon as the HEAT team learned about the homeless mother and her young children. The family was able to spend the night at a hotel and Directions for Living is following up, Cantrell said.
“The need is so high and resources stretched so high,” she said. “Yes, there’s money coming in, but as quick as it comes in, it’s going right back out. These agencies that we partner with are really trying to do what they can.”
Foster said the Homeless Leadership Alliance is working to change the general perception that the face of homelessness is “the older man on the side of the street who may be panhandling, who may have issues with mental health or substance abuse.”
Instead, she told County Commissioners, “It is often an African-American mother with children who is working in the hotel industry, in our service industry, but it’s just not enough to afford the particular housing we have available in this community.”
For those of us who dare to look, we see their children suffer.