Friday, November 17, 2017

Despite deficit, shelter for homeless is needed


If this was a hotel, the sign outside would be flashing "No vacancy.''

The nondescript cinder-block structure looks like a lot of others in Hudson. It has a pale yellow exterior with rust-colored trim and an aging basketball hoop on the edge of the driveway. Just a block off U.S. 19, this place was built in 1960, but took on its current mission in the early 1990s. Six parking spaces are out front and six bedrooms are inside; three are shared by 10 single women and three more are reserved for mothers with children. It's a total of 22 beds for people with no place else to go.

The emergency homeless shelter allows people to live there for 30 days, but they can extend the stays for up to 90 days, as the women seek employment and a permanent home. Sadly, demand exceeds space.

The shelter received 305 telephone calls over the past nine months from people seeking a roof over their heads. That's a lot of calls for just 22 beds. Friday morning, there was an empty bedroom, but it already had been outfitted with a portable crib. A woman with two children, an 18-month-old toddler and a 5-month-old infant, was on her way.

These aren't drug addicts or panhandlers. These are women fleeing abusive relationships, facing health care issues, or who lost their homes after losing their income. To stay, they must work toward self-sufficiency.

The women get help applying for federal benefits, writing resumes and filling out job applications and they get three bus passes a week to travel for employment interviews. They get all this free of charge.

The Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services has run this homeless shelter for two decades, taking it over after the Homeless Coalition of Pasco acquired the property, but couldn't run the facility. The shelter expanded 10 years ago, courtesy of a county-administered federal grant, that allowed a second building to be added, providing the additional bedrooms for the single moms with kids.

But, the people who make use of this homeless shelter could be back out on the street. It is operating at a projected $85,000 deficit this year; an expense Gulf Coast is leery of continuing. The agency receives $45,000 from United Way, but this year failed to receive pass-through funding from Pasco County, which allocates $250,000 for outside charity work. Gulf Coast got shut out after receiving $10,000 in 2012, half of what it had gotten in previous years. Other funding sources have dwindled as well.

The agency applied for an emergency allocation from the United Way of Pasco, a decision on that will come later this month. But, that stop-gap doesn't resolve an ongoing dilemma.

"We're all concerned about the survival of the shelter,'' said Duggan Cooley, president and CEO of United Way, "but we're also concerned about the long-term viability of that shelter.''

That is key. Even transferring ownership or shelter management to another homeless agency, as has been suggested, simply transfers the red ink to somebody else's books.

In 2010, Pasco County adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Just last month Pasco commissioners were briefed on an ambitious, long-term redevelopment strategy for west Pasco which included, as one of its key elements, implementing that same homeless plan.

Shuttering the only west Pasco shelter exclusively serving homeless women and children is not part of that strategy. Nor should it be considered an acceptable option in a community branding itself as a place "bringing opportunities home.''

Just ask the beneficiaries.

Marie Murdoch isn't homeless. Not anymore. She's 54, legally blind and out of work, but she left the shelter a couple of weeks ago after moving in two days before Thanksgiving. She is rooming with another blind woman and awaiting surgery to repair a detached retina, a by-product of her diabetes. The call center where she worked previously is holding a job for her, but after 30 years in customer service and retailing, Murdoch wants more. She is taking on-line classes in criminal justice and has ambitions to land a job in law enforcement.

And if she hadn't made her way to the shelter when she lost her rented apartment in Holiday?

"I tell people I would have been on the fourth bench on (U.S.) 19 or under the 15th bush.''

Jennifer Turman, 32, is a single mother living at the shelter with her two elementary school-age children. Turman lost her job in October when the owner closed the bar and grill where she worked. She and the kids moved to the shelter in December and she has filled out 104 job applications in the past two months. She has an interview on Monday.

She, too, has taken criminal justice classes, but she just completed out a financial aid application because she wants to attend a Bible college and become a church youth group leader or even a counselor for the homeless.

Without the emergency shelter in Hudson, she said, "I would have been with my kids on a bench. I would have lost my children.''

"This place,'' Turman said, "saved my life.'


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