New homeless: families in bind

Mary Hite keeps her sons, Adam, 2, and Ethan, 7, occupied Friday in their apartment at Touched by an Angel Ministries, where they have lived for six months. She and her husband, Maurice, were evicted from their $1,200-a-month rental home after he was laid off.

LARA CERRI | Times

Mary Hite keeps her sons, Adam, 2, and Ethan, 7, occupied Friday in their apartment at Touched by an Angel Ministries, where they have lived for six months. She and her husband, Maurice, were evicted from their $1,200-a-month rental home after he was laid off.

ST. PETERSBURG — Ethan Hite sits on the twin bed he shares with his 2-year-old brother and cuts coupons for PlayStation games.

"Can I have these two games for Christmas?" the 7-year-old calls to his mother. "This one is $10 and this one is $7."

Mary Hite, her husband and their three children live in an efficiency apartment in a homeless shelter. Neither parent has a full-time job.

But Mary Hite doesn't tell her oldest any of that. She tucks the coupons into her pocket and embraces him.

The Hites are among the Tampa Bay area's fastest-growing homeless population: parents and children.

Area shelter directors, homeless advocates, government officials and child welfare agencies say the rising unemployment rate, the sluggish housing market and the spiraling economy have forced an unprecedented number of families out of their homes.

And these officials aren't sure what to do about it. Limited social service funding, a dearth of affordable housing and a homeless assistance system designed for single men — the largest homeless demographic — make catering to families difficult.

"It has emerged as the next crisis in terms of housing," Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said.

Numbers are hard to come by, but the overwhelming anecdotal evidence has pushed advocates for the homeless into action.

Pinellas County's Homeless Leadership Network will meet Friday to discuss how to address the uptick in homeless families. Business leaders are trying to organize an "adopt a family" program, and a handful of shelters that catered solely to single men and women for decades are adding bunk beds to accommodate children.

For the first time, several families were admitted this year to Refuge Ministries, a St. Petersburg homeless center for recovering addicts, after director Bruce Wright learned they had been couch surfing with friends.

"It's really hard," he said. "We see these people hurting who aren't getting the help because there just aren't resources available."

Others have had to turn people away.

"We have seen a huge increase, and a lot of it is due to the economic conditions," said Jan Falcione, community resource manager for Mary & Martha House in Ruskin, which accepts only homeless or abused women and children.

To ensure that the women feel safe, men, including fathers, are not allowed. "We don't have the proper facilities for that," Falcione said.

Reports of children without enough to eat or a place to sleep have flooded child welfare hotlines, said April Putzulu, a director for Eckerd Community Alternatives, the nonprofit that oversees foster care in Pasco and Pinellas counties. The agency plans to meet with local law enforcement officials this week to discuss the crisis.

Families need to be told where and how to get help so that they can stay together, Putzulu said.

"We want to prevent families from entering the dependency system or prevent removal of children from their families when it is not a safety issue," she said. "In these tough times what we really want to do is support our families and ultimately the best thing is for the child to stay with the family."

Putzulu said local social service officials also are considering applying for federal housing vouchers for needy families.

At Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries, there are 28 families waiting for beds. That is on top of the 40 families the shelter is already housing.

"We are seeing more working-class families," said spokeswoman Ana Mendez. "Mom got laid off. Dad got laid off. They need some extra help."

At Touched by an Angel Ministries in St. Petersburg, founders Jeffrey and Vonda Polhill are cramming up to five beds in each of their 21 apartments to house as many people as possible. Single men and women are grouped together to make room for more families.

"They come here with absolutely nothing," Jeffrey Polhill said.

Homelessness has been a growing problem in the Tampa Bay area, and the economy hasn't helped. Last year's homeless surveys found 5,195 homeless people in Pinellas and 9,532 in Hills­borough. Officials expect higher numbers during the next count in January.

For the Hites, homelessness hit suddenly.

Mary Hite, 28, was pregnant with daughter Chelsea and working as a customer service manager at a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Pinellas Park.

Maurice Hite, 42, was the household's primary breadwinner. He worked as an installer and welder for a building company but was laid off in early 2008 when there wasn't enough work to go around. He lost his job about the same time his daughter was born in February.

The family was evicted from its $1,200-a-month rental home a few weeks later.

The Hites soon found Touched by an Angel Ministries. They thought the help would allow them to recover quickly.

Then the couple's car broke down in June. Mary Hite quit her job because she didn't have a ride. Maurice Hite was able to find work, but only part time. Usually a star pupil, Ethan began to act up at school.

"It felt like a tornado," Maurice Hite said of the past nine months. "Everything just keeps piling up."

Finding help

2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares: Call 211 for referrals to social service agencies in Pinellas, Hernando and Citrus counties.

Salvation Army Social Services in Clearwater: Can help with rent and mortgage assistance for families with dependent children. (727) 446-4177.

YWCA of Tampa Bay: Operates an emergency family shelter in St. Petersburg. (727) 823-2859.

Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater: Offers housing and support services: (727) 442-9041.

Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa: Offers emergency and long-term shelters. (813) 209-1000.

fast facts

Where to find help

2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares: Call 211 for referral to social service agencies in Pinellas, Hernando and Citrus counties.

Salvation Army Social Services in Clearwater: Can help with rent and mortgage assistance for families with dependent children. (727) 446-4177.

YWCA of Tampa Bay: Operates an emergency family shelter in St. Petersburg. (727) 823-2859.

Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater: Offers housing and support services: (727) 442-9041.

Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa: Offers emergency and long-term shelters. (813) 209-1000.

New homeless: families in bind 12/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 4, 2008 12:19pm]

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