For months, Keshia Poole fought to stave off the inevitable. She started by squeezing with her seven children into her sister's home. Then came a pay-by-the-week motel. When there was no more money, she persuaded the father of her four youngest children to take in the entire family of eight. A few weeks ago, Poole, 35, took the step she'd been dreading. She moved into a homeless shelter. For the former school bus driver, it was her last resort. "I was just trying to see if I could work it out on my own,'' she said. Advocates for the homeless say they are seeing more families like Poole's. Many, though, remain invisible, "couch surfing'' in homes of family and friends and living in fear of losing their children for failing to put a roof over their heads.
As their numbers have grown, the handful of Pinellas County agencies that shelter them are struggling to keep up.
• In St. Petersburg, the YWCA/USF Family Village Housing took in 127 families with 240 children last year, but officials say the loss of a chunk of funding means the center will not be able to meet the needs of families desperate for emergency and transitional housing.
• On Fourth Street S, the Salvation Army's Red Shield Lodge can shelter a few families, but tight quarters mean husbands must be separated from their wives and children and bunk in a dorm with other homeless men.
• In Clearwater, RCS Grace House helps about 500 people a year, but it has had cuts in regular funding for the coming year. So has ASAP Homeless Services in St. Petersburg.
Though the 2-year-old Pinellas Hope program — a tent city near Pinellas Park — has been praised for its successful work with the homeless, the site cannot accommodate families with children.
The problem of families without homes is one that St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Linkiewicz deals with around the clock. Linkiewicz, head of the city's homeless outreach program, said that some families seek refuge in motels; others sleep in their cars.
Late last week, Linkiewicz and Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's manager of social services planning, scrambled to find shelter for 11 families living in an apartment building at Third Avenue S and 35th Street that is in foreclosure.
"We are working hard and fast. There will be no one on the street,'' Abbott said Friday.
A January survey of the county revealed 1,944 homeless children under 18, a 102 percent increase from the year before, said Sarah Snyder, executive director for the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.
"On any given day, we're looking at 250 to 300 homeless families. We know that's an undercount, because it is so hard to find homeless families,'' Snyder said. "It's the economy. Thirty-six percent of the people we counted in January, this was the first time they've ever been homeless."
Pinellas County has accommodations for only about 166 families, she said.
At the YWCA/USF Family Village, families like Poole's can remain in emergency housing for up to 60 days. Those in the center's transitional housing program can stay for up to two years while parents work, study and save money to rebuild their lives.
In a normal economy, most families in long-term housing are back on their feet within 18 months, said Tamika Coley, Family Village's assistant director of housing and support services. Additionally, more than 70 percent of those who seek emergency shelter usually are able to obtain stable housing, employment or some form of income at the end of 60 days.
The shelter can house up to 24 families at a time, but that assistance is now jeopardized, said Joyce Pritchett, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Tampa Bay, which runs Family Village. City and county funds have been cut by $61,000, dealing a severe blow to the program's $300,000 budget, she said.
The shortfall means Family Village will struggle to keep the lights on, put food on the table and provide necessities from formula to diapers and seemingly unimportant extras like barrettes for the hair of little girls, Pritchett said. As well, she said, the center might have to consider layoffs from its already meager staff. Besides city and county funding, the program depends on money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, foundations, corporations and individuals.
This month, promise of help for homeless families comes in the form of a new HUD initiative — the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program — that is being administered locally by the Pinellas County Health and Human Services Department. The money — about $1.5 million for county residents — is designed to provide short- and medium-term rental assistance and services for homeless families and individuals and those on the verge of losing a place to live.
The money will help families move out of shelters and "make room for somebody else,'' said Cliff Smith, the county's assistant director of health and human services.
That, however, is not as simple as it sounds, said Lisa Matzner, director of development for RCS. She cited stiff requirements, including a stipulation that to qualify for the program, applicants must have a verifiable plan for stable housing within three months.
"It makes sense,'' Matzner said, "but in this economy, most families we are serving, they are not there, because of the unemployment. So that stipulation is quite a hindrance for the families that we serve at Grace House.''
Linkiewicz, the St. Petersburg police officer, said he has been begging congregations to put up homeless families on their properties. They agree initially, he said, and then cite liability concerns.
"I understand liability,'' Linkiewicz said, "but you think Jesus was worried about liability? Let's do the right thing and get these folks off the street.''
It's what a new program, Family Promise of Pinellas County, a small coalition of churches, synagogues and mosques, hopes to do. Families will be sheltered in religious facilities and given help to find employment and permanent housing. Groundbreaking for a new hospitality center at Church of the Beatitudes in St. Petersburg took place in May.
So far, though, the group is six short of the 14 congregations needed to properly implement the program, the Rev. Phillip Miller-Evans said. "There are a number of churches that have agreed to help, but actually getting churches to give up their space has been very difficult,'' he said.
Meanwhile, for Poole and six of her children — the oldest found shelter with a friend — the YWCA/USF Family Village is the only hope.
Poole feels "kind of like discouraged, sad,'' she said as she told her story at the shelter.
"I'm not used to being in this place.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.