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More people pushed into homelessness in Pinellas

Steve Vangeli starts most working days early — around 5 a.m. — checking the doors and overhangs of Pinellas Park businesses for homeless people sleeping there. • When Vangeli finds someone, he sets them up with shelter for the coming night. At least, he does when shelter is available.

Vangeli is the Pinellas Park police officer whose duty it is to work with the city's homeless and get them off the streets. That could mean reuniting them with their families. Or referring them to the appropriate program. Or just getting them to a shelter for a few nights.

"We find out how many beds are (going to be available that night) at 7 o'clock in the morning," Vangeli said Friday. But "today, they have no beds available."

That's becoming a more frequent problem across Pinellas County as the number of homeless climb.

Final figures released Thursday from the January 2009 census of the homeless by Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless show a 20 percent increase in the overall number of homeless since 2007. The figures also show a sharp increase of 82.7 percent in the number of homeless who were without shelter.

"We have known anecdotally for at least a year that the poor economy was having a major impact on the numbers of homeless persons in Pinellas County," said Lisa Jackson, coalition president. "The results … demonstrate … how large the increase has been."

Also showing a huge increase were the numbers of homeless children — a 102 percent jump from 961 in 2007 to 1,944 this year. Those under 18 years old accounted for 18.5 percent of all homeless in 2007 and for 31.2 percent this year. The rise in the number of homeless children indicates that more families are losing their homes.

"Many people have in mind a stereotypical picture of an alcohol-addicted vagrant in tattered clothes sleeping in a doorway or on a park bench," said Sarah Snyder, coalition executive director. "However, the homeless census reveals that the face of homelessness now includes more families with children, nontraditional family types, and a greater number of working poor households."

Sometimes, it's potential families who are left homeless. Vangeli said he discovered a nine-month pregnant girl and her boyfriend sleeping in the woods last week. He referred them to Daystar in St. Petersburg where officials arranged to reunite them with their families in Alabama.

The majority — 86.3 percent — blame their homelessness on the lack of income, job loss or other financial reason. And 18.6 percent had been through a foreclosure or eviction.

The reasons for the increase are many: The count was more comprehensive than in previous years, but also the economy has played a large part. People who were living on the edge two years ago, have fallen off the edge because of job losses, salary cuts or freezes. Some people have lost rental housing because their landlords went through foreclosures.

Kevin Schill, 45, knows about that downslide. He managed a retail electrical store until a few weeks ago, when his employer lost an account and he became unemployed. Since then, Schill has worked five to 10 hours a week at fast-food joints or any place else he could earn a buck. Unable to pay rent, he has moved from place to place, finally staying two nights with a friend. Schill's two nights were up Friday morning and he was facing his first night without shelter and no idea where to go.

"This weekend I am scared," Schill said. "I am not scared of much, but this weekend I am worried."

Schill, who had come Friday afternoon to the Haven of Rest Mission in Pinellas Park for a meal, said that he has been offered a job, but it doesn't start for two weeks. He's unsure what he's going to do or how he's going to present himself in a professional manner. Between pawning thing, losing things and having items stolen "everything I have is gone," he said. "I am in shock."

Schill's case is not unusual.

"Now we're running into people that have never been homeless before," Officer Vangeli said. "We are running into more people who are getting evicted, foreclosed, (who) can't afford to live where (they were anymore)."

More people pushed into homelessness in Pinellas 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:32am]
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