Destiny Barberís life had been spiraling out of control when her case manager referred her to a transitional living program for LGBTQ youth.
In the months since sheís been at the Family Resources residence in Clearwater, Barber, 18, has been working on her GED, preparing to live independently and speaking confidently about becoming a well-known cosmetologist.
She envisions being "internet famous."
"I want people, when they say, Destiny, I want them to know, oh, thatís the girl who does really good makeup. Or, thatís the girl who did my hair. Or, thatís the girl who did Beyonceís makeup. I want to be known for my dream. I want to be known for something I love doing," she said.
"But if that doesnít work, I would love to become a travel nurse."
Barber, who is bisexual, has been living at Family Resourcesí SafePlace2Btoo since April. It can accommodate up to 12 young people, ages 16 to 21, and they can remain for up to 18 months.
"This place is just amazing and they should make more of them, because it gives young adults like us second chances," she said.
Advocates say thereís an acute need for services and permanent housing for young people like Barber. They add that official numbers donít give a true picture of homeless youth in Pinellas County, because many hide in plain sight in parks, on beaches and "couch surf" at the homes of family and friends.
"We do believe that homeless youth are hidden," said Susan Myers, CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board. "They are not overly inclined to go to typical homeless shelters. We do know that youth often hide from the authorities. ...They donít want to get into the child welfare system. And a significant number are LGBT who get kicked out of their homes."
In Pinellas County, a collaborative effort is underway to address the issue. Family Resources, which has provided shelter for runaway and homeless children and youth since 1978, is working with other organizations to open a resource center in St. Petersburg.
To be known as Safe Connections, the center at 3821 Fifth Ave. N will begin by addressing one aspect of the problem. The idea evolved from a survey of homeless LGBTQ youth in Pinellas County.
"One of the prominent pieces of information that came from the survey of the kids was they needed a better understanding of where they could go to get help and access services," said Family Resources CEO Lisa Davis.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg funded the 2016 survey. True Colors Fund in New York, which works to end homelessness among LGBT youth and was co-founded by singer Cyndi Lauper, is an advisor to the local program.
Even with its limited sample of 265 homeless youth, the survey concluded that "the number of homeless youth in Pinellas County, at a minimum, numbers in the hundreds."
Data from the 2018 Homeless Leadership Boardís "point-in-time" count showed the Pinellas County School District reporting 183 homeless students, ages 18 and older. The annual "point-in-time" count done in January reported 106 unaccompanied homeless young adults, ages 18 to 24.
Myers reiterated the difficulty of getting accurate counts. "They donít trust the system," she said. They donít trust adults. Many of them are exploited."
Larry Biddle, a consultant for the project, said organizations such as the school district and the Department of Health in Pinellas County will provide services in the new effort to help homeless youth.
Davis said Metro Wellness & Community Centers will assist through its network of health care facilities specializing in LGBTQ services.
"For me, itís very exciting that all of these agencies are collaborating to address this issue," Myers said. "Itís long overdue and much needed in our community."
Safe Connections will serve "kids and young adults up to the age of 24," Davis said. "We already have funding to serve youth that are under the age of 18. We have counseling for them and we have shelter for them from state and local dollars. Itís really when they are 18 and older that services become limited. There are adult homeless services available, but youth and young adults really donít fit into this model, based on their unique needs."
The budget to renovate existing buildings and construct an addition at Family Resourcesí St. Petersburg property is $550,000. An estimated $160,000 will also be needed to cover annual operational costs, said Biddle, who is spearheading fundraising.
"I think we have the possibility of government money covering the construction and we have an additional $100,000 contribution from an individual that will support the annual operating expenses," he said.
St. Petersburg restaurant Sea Salt recently had a benefit that will grow into a quarterly event, Biddle said.
Barber wasnít homeless when she moved to the Clearwater shelter, but life was difficult with her parents and she was close to be kicked out.
Providing permanent housing isnít yet part of the plan to address youth homelessness in the county, Davis said. But Safe Connections is a start.
"By offering a place where a young person can access WiFi, a secure place for their belongings, air conditioning, we hope to build relationships so that we can provide more important services such as dental, medical care, housing referrals, counseling and support and education and employment access," she said.
"This program is really about helping the young people find solutions. ... Itís about prevention ... whatever we can do to strengthen their current relationships with responsible adults and eliminate barriers to their wellbeing. Our end game is, we want to give them access and opportunity, so we donít have to count them as homeless."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes