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A new name, new mission and big plans to prevent Hillsborough families becoming homeless.

Rendering of a new 61-unit shelter planned by Dawning Family Services, a non-profit group that works to prevent families becoming homeless. [Courtesy of Dawning Family Services]
Rendering of a new 61-unit shelter planned by Dawning Family Services, a non-profit group that works to prevent families becoming homeless. [Courtesy of Dawning Family Services]
Published Aug. 21, 2019

TAMPA — For almost four decades, Alpha House has been a lifeline for homeless mothers and pregnant women, providing shelter and help to get back on their feet.

But its mission to help only pregnant women and those with young children sometimes meant separating struggling families.

And as the affordable housing crisis in Hillsborough left more households struggling financially, it became clear that the group needed to do more to help the whole family, said Chief Executive Officer Patricia Langford.

"It's not that we are turning away from our historic core population, it's just that we have the ability to bring the entire family in," said Langford. "I think it's easier for the family to focus when they're all together."

It's not just the group's mission that has changed. It has rebranded itself as Dawning Family Services and relocated from South Tampa to a new 1.8 acre site on Armenia Avenue in West Tampa, a community with more needy families.

And on Aug. 29, Dawning will launch a capital campaign with the target of raising about $8 million for construction of a 61-unit three-story emergency shelter. Other funding will come from grants from local government agencies.

When complete, the shelter will be able to house almost 250 people for up to 90 days. Two existing buildings on the site will be renovated into a family welcome center and a community services building with laundry, showers and multi-purpose rooms.

"We will need the support of the community in order to make sure that all of our 61 units can be built," said Langford. "I think this is an absolute need in Hillsborough County, and we are going to look to support from the community to help us with this dream."

Dawning's new location will make it easier for needy families to get help, said Jackie Dryden, the group's director of advancement. The new location is served by a county bus route and there is a nearby elementary school that children at the shelter could attend.

There will also be more focus on helping families avoid becoming homeless through prevention and diversion services.

Dawning's shift in mission puts it more in line with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which now favors programs that put homeless people in permanent housing. Under its old guise as Alpha House, the non-profit group was one of several that lost out on federal funding because of a shift away from transitional housing, which could be for up to two years.

The families that Dawning serves are typically low-income. Some already have an eviction in their past, making landlords wary of accepting them or requiring double security deposits.

There is no shortage of them in Hillsborough County. The 2019 Point in Time Count of homelessness estimates that 2,000 adults and children will be homeless over the course of a year. Another study, by the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida, found that half of all renters pay more than half their income on housing. That puts them at risk of debt and homelessness if they face a large medical or car repair bill.

Laquisha, a Tampa mother of seven, became homeless when pregnant with her youngest child after an altercation with her children's father. The Times is not using her full name to protect her identity.

Her children ended up in foster care and she bounced from relative to relative, sometimes sleeping outdoors.

"It was really devastating," she said. "I felt I would never get myself out of what I was in."

Help came when a friend told her to contact Dawning. She was placed in a shelter where staffers helped her obtain a bus pass, access to daycare and a housing voucher. She found work at a local fast food restaurant and is now able to have her children visit with her. She is working through a case plan to be permanently reunited with them.

"I never saw a program that helps you as much," she said.

Other homelessness prevention efforts include help with employment including writing résumés and making sure families receive any benefits they are entitled to such as daycare vouchers.

Dawning sold its South Tampa location in September for $2.8 million, according to Hillsborough County Property Appraiser data. Its new location cost just under $800,000.

The new shelter is expected to take several years to be complete. In the interim, the group is renting apartments to provide short-term housing for about 30 families.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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