The work of a local organization shows that homelessness can be ended for many individuals and families with a combination of compassion, appropriate services, competent business practices and lessons in personal responsibility.
In April 2003, a Clearwater husband and wife were doing relatively well financially. The wife had two low-wage jobs. So did the husband. They had a school-age child and one on the way. A complicated pregnancy left the wife unable to work. The husband continued to work, but he could not support the family on his meager earnings.
Soon after their second child, a daughter, was born, they were evicted because they had fallen behind in the rent. Next, they were told their newborn had a heart condition requiring corrective surgery they could not afford.
Unable to get help from government agencies and other organizations, they turned to the Clearwater-based, nonprofit Homeless Emergency Project, locally known as HEP. They were placed in emergency housing, given crisis counseling, clothing and were assured of nutritious daily meals. The family received free medical care, including the newborn's heart surgery.
Three months after entering HEP, the family was moved into a furnished three-bedroom apartment in the organization's permanent housing program that puts families on track to become self-sufficient. Project staff members assessed the couple's history, focusing on the problems that contributed to their becoming homeless and giving them regular health care and vocational training.
Last March, the couple had new jobs and moved into their own unsubsidized apartment. Christine Garrison, HEP development specialist, said they have become "productive members of our community. The family is healthy and flourishing."
This family's success is not unusual. For the last 40 years, the project has quietly been the major provider of direct services to the homeless in Pinellas County. Its success rate in helping clients make the transition from homelessness to permanent housing is well above the national average for similar programs, with 77 percent making the transition in 2008.
The main campus, on N Betty Lane in the North Greenwood community, has 300 beds: 25 for overnight shelter; 75 for emergencies; 108 for those transitioning to nonsubsidized housing; and 92 for people who, because of serious problems, must live at the facility permanently. An additional 1,113 clients are housed at the other 28 facilities.
Bruce Fyfe, chairman of the board, and Barbara Green, president and CEO, said the project's success starts with their clear understanding that homelessness can be ended with a "holistic" and "comprehensive" approach, which they refer to as "the continuum of care."
HEP works with dozens of other organizations and agencies, including Morton Plant Hospital, St. Petersburg College, R' Club Child Care Inc., Pinellas County Schools, BayCare Behavioral Health, Pinellas County Human Services and the Veterans Administration. With these and other partners, HEP provides vital services such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment, primary care, dental care, job skills training, public benefits advice, transportation, legal assistance, employment counseling and tutoring for the children.
Aside from the project's services, its common sense, tough-love and humanitarian philosophy are major reasons for its accomplishments.
"Self-sufficiency requires self-respect," Fyfe wrote in an e-mail response to my question. "We firmly believe that our staff and our volunteers must treat all clients as they would treat themselves, that all facilities must be clean and well-maintained; that all food be prepared with skill and balanced nutrition. We believe respect is reciprocal and insist that clients respect staff, volunteers, neighbors, other clients and the facilities as though this was their home and everyone was a member of their family."
In her e-mail response, Green emphasized personal responsibility: "Unlike most homeless assistance providers, we require a commitment from all clients accepted into our program. Upon entry, all clients agree to comply with all program rules and codes of conduct. Clients are held accountable for their own actions and behaviors.
"They share responsibility in the process of gaining independence. For example, all clients contribute at least five hours a week in community services hours, volunteering in the kitchen, thrift store, bike shop or other areas that meet their abilities. This engages them and helps them realize their potential to be contributing citizens alongside their neighbors."
By helping the homeless, HEP contributes to the greater good. For example, the Morton Plant Outreach Team, which provides HEP with a full-time, on-site registered psychiatric nurse and two on-site licensed practical nurses, reports that on-site diagnosis and intervention save the local health care system more than $2 million annually in emergency room visits and hospital admissions.
Every other organization in Pinellas County that assists the homeless can learn from HEP. Barbara Green and her staff are succeeding in ending homelessness for the overwhelming majority of their clients.