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Childhood without hope

One 10-year-old girl living in a homeless shelter was worried about having to start at another new school and not having "enough things." But she was going to try to earn a little money raking leaves "so I don't have to borrow school supplies."

A mother with five children won't tell her three school-age children that where they live is a homeless shelter. "They just think it's a really small apartment. It's bad enough they know I'm on food stamps."

And little Jeramia, who spent a great deal of his two years living with his parents in shabby hotels and shelters, stopped talking, regressed from potty training to diapers and became especially clinging toward his mother. His face was bitten by fleas in one shelter. "It's affected him a lot," she said of their transient lifestyle because her husband could not find work. "When a child decides to give up, he gives up."

These sad children, whose stories were told by St. Petersburg Times writer David Olinger today and last Sunday, are among the homeless in Tampa Bay. They are children whose families have no jobs or who work for dismal pay. They are the victims of a shattered economy and poor public policy at all levels that couldn't accommodate the housing need even when times were better. They survive in their parents' cars, hotel rooms or in cramped shelters where conditions are dignity-sapping at best and in some cases inhumane.

At the Ozanam Inn in St. Petersburg, a shelter operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, children sleep on piles of blankets and residents say the director goes through their belongings when they aren't there. One resident, arrested for hitting his wife in the shelter, was allowed to return by the director even though a judge made the husband sign a statement saying he would stay away from his wife while he awaited trial.

The terrible problems at this shelter should be remedied immediately, but that won't have an impact on the larger calamity. In Florida the estimated number of homeless has tripled to 31,000 people in six years, 40 percent of whom are families, because the affordable housing stock has dropped drastically at the same time more people are struggling harder just to keep food on the table.

Federal efforts against homelessness have been weak to nonexistent, and Florida's crippling budget shortage has brushed the homeless off the priority list. Cities and counties are directed by state growth management law to include affordable housing in their comprehensive development plans, but fewer than 20 percent of the plans have complied. The state doesn't license homeless shelters, and unless complaints attract attention, it does no inspections.

It has become all too easy to ignore the homeless man on the curb with his possessions tied on his back. But when the face of a homeless person is that of a child, how can society, public and private, keep looking the other way?

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