Hillsborough health fair connects homeless with dozens of service groups

YBOR CITY — A few months ago, Haiden Larson found himself unexpectedly homeless.

The 18-year-old had recently moved from Massachusetts to Florida to stay with his dad. Things didn't work out and Larson had nowhere to go.

"I had always lived in a middle-class family," he said. "Moving from that to having absolutely nothing was earth-shattering."

Roaming Tampa for three months, he felt invisible.

"People look at you like you're nothing when you live on the street," he said, "like you don't exist."

Now, things have changed. And he says it's because he asked for help.

On Saturday, dozens of organizations came together to offer services to those in similar situations. The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County held its annual homeless health fair event at Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus.

"It's important because for homeless or low-income individuals to be able to access all these services, they would have to drive or take a bus all over the county," said Lesa Weikel, a spokeswoman for the Homeless Coalition.

"This makes it a one-stop shop," she said.

Showers and haircuts were available, as well as legal consultations, housing assistance and educational resources.

It's a need that is great, Weikel said.

About 18,000 homeless people live in Hillsborough, she said, with about 7,300 of those on the streets.

John Story III, 28, has been homeless for the past year.

He came Saturday hoping to find help obtaining a Florida driver's license. A lot of jobs require him to have it, he said.

"I made some bad decisions," he said. "And I'm just trying to get off the streets."

Gloria Montez, 48, spent many years living on the streets and served prison time for prostitution charges, she said. When she got out a few years ago, she said, she changed her life.

She splits time between her mother's home and her daughter's. Without a home of her own, she is still considered homeless.

She came Saturday looking for help with that.

"This has helped big time," she said, "because one of the ladies I spoke with informed me about a place I may be able to rent."

About 600 people were expected to attend Saturday's event, Weikel said.

More than 50 organizations and 150 volunteers helped make it happen.

Lawyers from Bay Area Legal Services helped people with legal problems ranging from domestic violence to housing discrimination.

"Sometimes people don't even know we exist," said lawyer John Salgado. "And that we offer basically free services for low-income individuals."

For Larson, the event was an opportunity to learn more about permanent housing options.

He stays at Covenant House of Tampa, a transitional housing program that provides help to men, women and children as they move from homelessness to independence.

He is finishing his high school education and working on computers while considering what his next step will be.

He appreciated the organizations that came together to lend support.

"People are willing to help," Larson said, "as long as you are willing to help yourself."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Hillsborough health fair connects homeless with dozens of service groups 06/09/12 [Last modified: Sunday, June 10, 2012 12:57am]

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