NORTH TAMPA — At any given time about 250 homeless teens roam the streets of Hillsborough County. Without a stable place to live, many fall into drugs, gangs and prostitution.
Jeff Rainey, CEO of Hillsborough Kids, saw the problem escalating.
"When we stepped back and looked at teens who weren't in foster care but were homeless or unaccompanied, it was shocking," said Rainey, whose agency manages child welfare in the county through the Department of Children and Families.
This year, Rainey and officials with the Lazydays Employee Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Lazydays RV company, began thinking of ways to stem that tide.
The result is the Lazydays Center for Youth Development, a one-stop resource center for teens without a home or those who are at risk.
The center is set to open in November at 9391 N Florida Ave. Homeless teens will be able to walk in and get assistance for immediate needs including clothing, toiletries and, in some cases, ultimately a home.
Each year the Seffner-based foundation funds projects aimed at helping youth. Last year, the group helped fund A Kid's Place, an emergency shelter for abused, abandoned and neglected children in Brandon.
"It is something that we realize is a big issue in our community," Rainey said. "And when Lazydays came forward and wanted to address the issue as far as partnering and helping fund it, we were excited."
The reasons behind teen homelessness vary, say officials for Hillsborough Kids and Lazydays.
"They may have been kicked out of their home," said Harold Oehler, attorney for the RV company. "Their parents may not have been able to afford an extra mouth to feed. They may have run away from an abusive family. A number of them declare that they're gay and the family kicks them out. Sometimes they become pregnant and the family kicks them out."
The results of a teen on the street trickle down to societal woes.
"In Hillsborough County, your options are prostitution, drug trafficking or committing other crimes just to eat, to survive," said Oehler, who has worked with Lazydays in other child welfare issues.
The Lazydays foundation has pledged $70,000 a year over the next five years to provide salaries for staff, including Kathy Wiggins, the center's program manager. Hillsborough Kids, which owns the Florida Avenue building, partners with the foundation by offering facilities.
After the five years, officials hope to continue and expand the project through private and public funding.
Wiggins, a former high school teacher, has firsthand knowledge of the issue. During her six years in the school system, she helped students through the federal Homeless Education and Literacy Grant.
"Safe, child-friendly, some opportunity to provide them with space to confidentially talk about their problems and goals is what we want to provide," Wiggins said. "What are your basic needs? Do you need food? Clothes washed? Can you go home tonight?"
The new center will focus on those between the ages of 16 and 22. When they walk in they will be assessed for immediate needs. The ultimate goal will be finding them a place to stay short- or long-term.
The details of where children will be placed and how many beds will be available is still being worked out, Wiggins said.
Resources already available in the community will be used, including from Metropolitan Ministries, the Salvation Army and Children in Need of Services — Families in Need of Services, Rainey said.
"We would look at some community resources and try to hook them up with some of the homeless shelters or places that can provide overnight beds," Rainey said. "Some communities have relationships with hotels or apartment complexes."
Rainey also hopes the center will assist teens from unduly entering the foster care system.
"What we're doing in essence is prevention," he said. "If we get in these teens' lives early on or before they get too deep, we're going to be able to wrap them up with services and help create a network of people in their lives."
Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3405.
By the numbers
2,500 number of children and teens served by Hillsborough Kids due to abuse or neglect.
10percentage of Hillsborough County's homeless population who are minors.
9number of shelters in Hillsborough County that accept women and children.
Source: Hillsborough Kids