CLEARWATER — It has been eight years since the county's Hispanic leaders last sat down together to discuss solutions to their community's problems. Eight years in which much has changed.
Whereas undocumented immigrants used to account for much of Pinellas' Hispanic population, today they are a fraction of what they once were. Their children, who were born here, are growing up in two worlds: one in which they are citizens, Floridians, and Americanized public school students. And one in which their parents can't drive them to the mall, because they can't get a driver's license.
The changes have brought new challenges for the community's leaders, roughly a hundred of whom convened on Friday for the Hispanic-Latino Community Summit. Organized by the Hispanic Outreach Center, the meeting gathered teachers, church leaders, law enforcement officials, and lawyers together in Clearwater, where they puzzled over how best to help a community in flux.
"How do we get past the fear?" asked Sofia Byard, a literacy specialist for High Point Neighborhood Family Center. She recalled the time she sent a student home with a blank form that was never returned because the parents thought anything they wrote down would jeopardize their immigration status.
Myriam Irizarry, the general counsel to Pinellas' clerk of court, said that, in the past, she has helped arrange free legal consultations for Hispanic immigrants. The lawyers came; the translators were there; and sometimes, so few residents showed up that she had to wonder if she was doing something wrong.
"We know what services we're offering, but I think the big community out there, they don't know what's available," she said.
A survey conducted by the Juvenile Welfare Board of 230 Hispanic professionals, and people who work with the population, found that along with English language skills and immigration problems, transportation is at the top of the list of the community's concerns.
For residents who either can't obtain a license legally or can't afford a car, the county's skeletal bus system barely gets them to work and back, said Sandra Lyth, the Hispanic Outreach Center's executive director. Their children, most of whom attend the county's schools, depend entirely on the district's buses, a situation that often means they have to go home when class ends instead of staying for sports and after school clubs.
"Here we spend all this money on school buses, we spend all this money on PSTA, and then every church and community group has its own van," Lyth said. "But what we need is a different kind of transportation model."
Along with focusing more on transportation, Lyth said the outreach center is responding to another change.
Whereas for years, Clearwater has been where most of Pinellas' Hispanic immigrants have chosen to live, many are now moving to St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park. And while the latest census data show Hispanics make up about 8 percent of the county overall, there are now parts of South Pinellas where they account for between 10 and 15 percent. It's not that the population is shifting southward; its numbers are growing, just as they are statewide.
But unlike Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park are hardly equipped to handle an influx of Hispanic immigrants, a fact that Lyth said will likely lead her organization to expand.
To Irizarry, the community's growth in south county is a sign of its progress. Still, she said, it needs leaders now. Comparing the county to other parts of Florida with deeply rooted immigrant communities and places where Hispanics are in elected positions, "Pinellas is not there," she said.