Homelessness on the rise in Hernando County

BROOKSVILLE — Armed with some new numbers, the Mid-Florida Homeless Coalition hopes to sharpen the focus on the growing number of Hernando residents about to be or already living on the streets.

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Recent statistics show that on any given day, 196 people live throughout the county in shelters, woods or other makeshift residences. What's more, there's a growing number of children —131 on a given day — who have been identified through schools as homeless.

"Our hope is that these numbers start the conversation about this issue that's getting bigger in our communities," said Barbara Wheeler, coalition director. "We'll use the numbers in our grant cycle for state and federal dollars to show need, and so that our partner agencies will have them."

In January, the coalition and volunteers from other local agencies fanned across the county to count homeless residents. A previous census showed that 250 people lived on the streets.

While it might seem the number of homeless living on the streets is going down, comparing the two counts, that's not the case, Wheeler said. More and more families have been forced to live with others in crowded dwellings.

And, according to new ways the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is using to count, that status classifies them as homeless.

That's how many of the schoolchildren have been identified.

"But the numbers we have don't include their parents or other children who aren't school age that may be living in a home with more than one family," Wheeler said. "So we're far from having a real sense of what's happening out there. We hope to find these other indicators so we can more accurately tell the story of what's happening."

Hernando County health and human services director Jean Rags said that her office has seen an increase in the number of people who ask for help.

"We have at least 25 people (a day) who call or stop by the office asking for homelessness assistance," Rags said.

The situations vary. Some have been evicted because they lost their job and can't afford the rent. Others have been asked by the families they were living with to leave, whether because they faced eviction by having too many people stay in the home or because they themselves were losing their house or apartment.

Divorce and domestic violence, along with foreclosures, are other reasons behind the growing number of children who can now be called homeless, Rags said. The high unemployment rate doesn't help.

On top of those scenarios, there are still large numbers of people who continue to move to the county and show up unprepared, Rags said. With little or no savings, some who ask for county assistance usually can't come up with first and last month's rent and a security deposit to move into a new residence.

In all this moving around, children who bounce from home to home can typically lose up to three months of education each time their family moves, Wheeler said.

"Teachers can tell you, a lot of them end up in and out of different schools and don't have time to get settled," she said. "That's why there's a focus on helping them stay in one place."

Along with gathering data for federal and state grants, the homeless census is a tool to educate communities, Wheeler said. It's a reminder that homelessness is an issue that people can't afford to forget.

Most of those who don't have a place to call home end up in emergency rooms more often than those who do, and they are more likely to cycle through the jail and prison systems. In the end, they are even more of a financial strain on overburdened government systems.

"We do have homeless," Wheeler said. "And the bigger an issue it becomes, the more it's going to cost."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (352) 848-1432.

Homelessness on the rise in Hernando County 04/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 8:26am]

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