Tuesday, January 16, 2018
News Roundup

RCS Grace House sees through stereotypes to help homeless families

CLEARWATER

Diana Lugo's vision may be no better than the average person, but she certainly sees the plight of homeless families in a different light.

Lugo, program director at the RCS Grace House in Clearwater, doesn't possess X-ray vision, but her position at the emergency shelter for homeless families allows her to pierce through the stereotypes. Professional workers have knocked on her door, embarrassed that they have burned through savings and used up 401k funds trying to provide a home for their kids.

She's seen hard-working couples fall on hard times because one fell ill, turning a two-income household into mother or father struggling to make ends meet. They need support, a chance to start over and someone who listens without offering guilt-trip responses.

"When I look at the face of homeless families, I'm not sure we're all looking at the same thing," Lugo said. "I think these families are misrepresented. They're not abusing drugs. They're very responsible. It's just something that happened to them financially."

These families arrive at Grace House wrestling with a variety of problems, including unemployment, financial instability and sometimes mental health issues. But they don't arrive without dignity. Grace House provides one of its 14 fully-furnished apartments, but with the help of partners and volunteers it also offers life skills support.

The clients commit to turning their lives around on a dime, even if they don't have one. In eight short weeks, they are expected to rebuild by gaining employment and stabilizing their finances. Clearpoint provides financial counseling, the School District connects with transportation to keep the kids in school, Suncoast Mental Health provides counseling when needed, volunteers help with resumes.

So while the kids are in school or in childcare provided by Grace House, the client's job is to get a job. Lugo encourages them to not only fill out online applications, but to go out and try to make a personal connection.

"We had one client go into a store and say, 'I love shopping here. I would love to work here,' " Lugo said. "They had just lost a salesperson and they hired on that same day."

Some of the families pack their own car and leave for their new home.

Some have a friend pick them up and deliver them to their new life.

But all the RCS Grace House clients, no longer living under the cloud of homelessness, drive off with renewed hope, a tool box full of supportive services and beaming smiles from Lugo and her staff.

"We feel like we've accomplished something really far greater than helping them find a home," said Lugo, now in her fourth year as the program director.

The scene serves as reward for the staff and supporters at Grace House. So too does the data. A Juvenile Welfare Board study revealed that 99 percent of the clients at Grace House obtained stable housing in 2011-12, and of that 99 percent, 89 percent remained in stable housing through 2012-13.

On Saturday, a Splash of Jazz benefit takes place at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure in the Harborview Center downtown, and I'll be the emcee for the third consecutive year. I've grown to appreciate the big-hearted effort put in by the Holy Spirit Ecumenical Church to stage the fundraiser for Grace House.

And I've come to love how Lugo and her staff never fail to see hope in the families they serve.

It's a super power worth celebrating.

That's all I'm saying.

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