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Florida one of the worst states for growing problem: homeless children

TAMPA — Like many girls her age, 4-year-old Aliyah Newton lies down to sleep every night with a hopeful refrain.

"Good night, Mommy," she says after her hair is combed and America's Next Top Model is over. "See you in the morning for work!"

Aliyah's mom, Lisa Simmons, hasn't had a job or a home in eight months. The mother and daughter are living at a homeless shelter in Tampa, part of a growing Florida phenomenon of homeless families.

"I try not to deceive her, but I don't want to pressure her," said Simmons, 38. "She thinks I'm going to work. And that's a job. Looking for a job is truly a job."

Aliyah is one of nearly 50,000 homeless girls and boys across Florida, one of the highest rates in the country, according to a new study by the National Center on Family Homelessness. Forty-two percent are younger than 6.

The problem is worsening with the sagging economy, according to the report and social service experts.

The report blames Florida's high cost of living, unemployment and lack of affordable housing. And because the young and homeless generally have more health problems and less education, many of them could remain that way for the rest of their lives.

"Most people think they are the welfare babies. But, no, they're not," said Metropolitan Ministries residential services director Jay Molina. "The face of homelessness is changing rapidly."

In five years, the number of homeless children has increased 30 percent to about 1 million nationwide, said Barbara Duffield of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

For years, programs designed to combat homelessness focused on the most obvious group — "street people," said National Center on Family Homelessness president Ellen Bassuk.

"Policies focused on chronically homeless singles," Bassuk said. "The families on the street were largely ignored."

Yet their swelling numbers and the disadvantages these "invisible" children face without a stable home life are hard to overlook, Duffield said.

Homeless children face higher rates of health and emotional problems than most kids their age. They typically achieve lower levels of education and income. Nearly one in five children in Florida is uninsured — more than double the national average. And the state fails to prioritize homeless children when distributing child care vouchers, according to the report.

Advocacy groups say a lack of affordable housing is the main driver of family homelessness. It's an issue that many across Florida know all too well.

Housing is considered affordable, Weikel said, if monthly payments stay under 30 percent of household income. Renters would need to make $17 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in Hillsborough County — prohibitively expensive for parents earning minimum wage.

So homeless families often sleep in their cars, the streets or at local aid agencies, such as Metropolitan Ministries, where Simmons sought shelter. It houses 85 children in dorm-style quarters. Forty families, including 74 children, are on a waiting list.

It doesn't take much for a family teetering on the edge of poverty to wind up homeless, experts say. "For families in this situation, even a seemingly minor event can trigger a catastrophic outcome, pushing a family onto the streets," this week's report said.

Homeless or not, Aliyah is still a little girl. So she makes new friends at the shelter and learns to tie her glittery shoelaces, even as her mom gets up each day to look for work.

The former Florida Power & Light customer service employee was laid off about a year ago and moved here from West Palm Beach in search of a job. She thought the job market would be better here and hopes the hours she has spent tweaking resumes, phoning temp agencies and agonizing over her career will land her a job in the near future.

But after half a year of frustrations and dead ends, Simmons said she sometimes needs reminders of what she's working toward: a home for herself and her little girl.

"I have those breakdown moments where it seems like nothing's working and no matter what I do, all my striving and effort seems to be, like, for nothing," she said.

Next to her, Aliyah sings to herself and plays with the badge that gets them into their room.

"But I know it's for something."

Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.

Florida one of the worst states for growing problem: homeless children 03/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 9:58am]
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