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'Homeless' definition change will increase numbers, open more doors for aid

With no job, Pamela Sims, 42, went from living in her own house to moving in with her children and grandchildren in a one-bedroom apartment. Sims was sorting her belongings to decide what could go so she could make things more comfortable.

SCOTT MCINTYRE | Times

With no job, Pamela Sims, 42, went from living in her own house to moving in with her children and grandchildren in a one-bedroom apartment. Sims was sorting her belongings to decide what could go so she could make things more comfortable.

TAMPA — For about a year, Pamela Sims, 42, has crashed on a couch in her son's one-bedroom apartment in north Tampa.

Her two daughters are there, too, sleeping next to her in the living room. So are her two grandchildren, including a 2-week-old named Lavayia.

With no job, she said, she is a few feet from living on the streets.

"It's beyond hard," Sims said, her right eye stained red from a popped blood vessel. "Stress — that's all it is."

Until recently, she would have been ineligible for most federal and state homeless programs. But there's some good news for Sims: She is now considered homeless.

A recent change in the definition of "homelessness" at the federal and state levels will open up housing options previously denied to those not quite living on the street.

It also means the number of homeless people in Tampa Bay will spike in January when an official count is conducted.

For the first time, people who bounce from one temporary housing situation to another — including those who cannot afford a place on their own and must crash with family and friends — will be counted.

"We are going to be seeing a lot more people," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

Most of these newcomers are expected to be families, she said. "We have so many families that are doubled up."

Christine Long, a senior programs officer with Metropolitan Ministries, said the change in definition represents an increasing focus on families and those on their way to becoming homeless. In the past, the focus has been on the chronically homeless, she said.

"It was definitely a barrier," Long said.

The goal of these changes is simple: to figure out how many homeless people are in the Tampa Bay area so they have the opportunity to apply for aid, said Lesa Weikel, a spokeswoman for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

"It will give us a more accurate picture of homelessness," Weikel said. "The previous definition of homelessness did not include everyone who was homeless."

But finding these people won't be easy, advocates for the homeless said.

Weikel said the Homeless Coalition is figuring out a strategy. Snyder said her organization would search for people through the school system, child care, foster care and other organizations that serve families.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated in late June there are 321,570 people living temporarily with other families in Florida.

In 2009, volunteers counted 9,566 homeless people in Hills­borough County and 6,235 in Pinellas. Both were higher than in previous years. Volunteers also counted 4,527 in Pasco County. Advocates say single parents, the newly homeless, the elderly and children make up the majority.

'Homeless' definition change will increase numbers, open more doors for aid 08/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 10:33pm]
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