PINELLAS PARK — The lack of affordable housing in Pinellas combined with a deteriorating economy is creating a financial vise squeezing some families and leaving them hard-pressed to pay for basic needs.
"We're just seeing a huge increase in the number of people desperate for help," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. "And it is only going to get worse."
Snyder is not alone in seeing an increasing demand for social services across Pinellas.
Pinellas County has grappled with the lack of affordable housing for the past several years as mobile home parks, apartments and other property was gobbled up to make way for high-end condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes.
Add foreclosures, high rent, inflation, the cost of gas and food, layoffs, wage freezes and joblessness to the mix and what results, Snyder said, is a "perfect storm of things that are coming together that impact" people who are already on the financial edge.
"People who have never gone to a food bank before are going to food banks," Snyder said. Some food banks are seeing a 50 percent to 75 percent increase in the number of people who are seeking help, she said. In some cases, the people standing in line are those who, in the past, contributed to the food bank.
"They're embarrassed … but they need to feed their families," Snyder said.
Some of the people are newly homeless. Snyder said she has seen an increase in the numbers of individuals and families who are homeless. But it's hard to get a reading on how many families are homeless because they try to hide it. They fear that the state Department of Children and Families would take their children away if officials knew they had no place to live.
"They're couch surfing. … That's a horrible way to raise a family," Snyder said. "People with kids will do just about anything not to let people know they are homeless."
In other cases, those needing help still have a home, but they're barely hanging on.
"They're choosing between food and keeping the power on," Snyder said. "Any place they can get assistance, they'll take it."
Need for the basics
Jennifer Silva, executive director of Clothes to Kids in Clearwater, is seeing a lot of people who must make difficult choices about basic needs.
Clothes to Kids is a not-for-profit that supplies new and slightly used clothing to low-income children in Pinellas County. Clothes to Kids is entering its busy season now, with school about to start, but she has already seen an increase in demand. In the first six months of the year, Clothes to Kids had served 50 percent more children than it did in the same period last year. And about 30 percent of her clients are first-timers, which Silva said is a high number.
Many of the people who come in say that filling their refrigerator and gas tank have become priorities and they have nothing left afterward, she said. Now parents are being faced with the need to pay for school supplies and back-to-school medical checkups.
"I have heard many people discussing with our volunteers and our staff members how hard it is to pay their rent and how worried they are," Silva said. "Everyone is very worried."
Snyder predicted the situation will get worse Oct. 1 when the new fiscal year kicks in because many government agencies, looking to cut expenses because of Amendment 1 and the drop in property values, have decreased funding to charities. That will mean a reduction in services. It's not only governments that are cutting back. Individuals who would normally donate money are strapped and donations are down at a time when the need for services is going up, Snyder said.
Drop in donations
The Rev. Lionel Cabral of the Suncoast Haven of Rest Rescue Mission in Pinellas Park is already feeling the crunch. Donations are so low that, early this month, he stopped delivering bag lunches to 11 day-labor sites and to Pinellas Hope, the homeless shelter on the edge of Pinellas Park. The Haven had been supplying about 5,000 bag lunches each month, or about 60,000 a year. And it's not just the lunches that may be in danger. The Haven is finding it hard to collect food to give away because of the price of gas. The truck the mission uses takes a lot of fuel.
"We're kind of in bad shape," Cabral said.
Cabral, like Snyder and Silva, is seeing more and more people who need help.
"Month to month it increases dramatically. It looks to me like the economy is getting worse rapidly," Cabral said. "We're not seeing homeless people as much as families."
Cabral said families from across Pinellas are making their way to the Haven for boxes of food.
"I'm more concerned with the marginal families who have a job," Cabral said. "We give food boxes to the working poor. They're right on the edge. … We're kind of the last stage" before they become homeless.