CLEARWATER — Families with children, and "unaccompanied youth" are two of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population in Pinellas.
"More than anything, I would like to see an acknowledgement that homelessness is more than the guy living under the bridge," said Kip Corriveau, director of social services at the Salvation Army of Upper Pinellas. "I work exclusively with families, and about two-thirds of those people are children. And people have no idea about unaccompanied youth."
Those two segments of the homeless population — families with children, and unaccompanied youth — will get a lot more attention in coming months after being named top priorities of the Homeless Leadership Board, a new group granted oversight of services and federal funding for the county's homeless.
Although the group may be new, its members are not new to the issue of homelessness. Many of them were already part of two groups — the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Leadership Network — which merged in January in response to the 2009 HEARTH Act.
The federal act, created in the face of research that revealed high relapse rates among the homeless, aims to get people off the streets and into permanent housing faster by giving funding decisions and social service oversight to local groups.
With that new authority, members of the Homeless Leadership Board will take on tasks they didn't before, including gathering homeless data for grant-writing purposes, compiling performance evaluations on groups that provide services, and eventually even dispensing funding to the groups on behalf of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The board will get recommendations from a "provider's council" made up of representatives from social service agencies, housing authorities, public schools and others. The group will soon create another subcommittee to make recommendations on funding for social service agencies.
"The idea (of the Hearth Act) was to promote a lot more local control and local input," Homeless Leadership Board executive director Sarah Snyder said.
The former Homeless Leadership Network "was all about creating policy," she said. "Now that (the Homeless Leadership Board) has some new authority, they can make some of it happen."
That eagerness was evident Friday, as board members and service providers met for four hours to discuss the organization's new role and map out short-term priorities for the next year .
"The No. 1 priority is funding, because without funding you can't do anything," board member Carlen Petersen said. "But what we're doing today is looking at the next year, knowing the funding that we have, where we're going to get the most effect for our dollars."
Providing help to families with children — child care, emergency and permanent housing, job opportunities or job training — has been a priority for at least two years, Snyder said.
But as members worked in small discussion groups Friday, service providers said unaccompanied youth, adults 18 to 25 who have aged out of foster care or homeless children as young as 10, are entering their doors in numbers never seen before.
Their stories vary. In some cases, officials say, these youths choose the streets rather than enter foster care following a bout with a guardian's physical or drug abuse. Sometimes, their parents kick them out because they are pregnant or gay.
Family Resources Inc. last year had contact 2,044 times with this population, of which 918 were with under 18, said chief operating officer and Largo Mayor Pat Gerard. Family Resources provides shelter and food temporarily and tries to teach young people about the dangers of prostitution and get them into permanent housing.
Other short-term goals for the new board include affordable rental housing, increased emergency shelter space and public education.
In coming months, the group will start planning long-term priorities. Those will include a one-stop hotline for social services, as well as the creation of an apartment rental assistance fund and a liaison who will work with private apartment communities to identify housing opportunities, Snyder said.
The key, she said, is building a large network of services.
"We cannot build our way out of homelessness," Snyder said. "We have to look at the bigger picture, not just getting them off the street, but working with them so they can stay housed."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.