As the late crowd files into the Clearwater St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen for breakfast, Kathy Hamm greets each one like an old friend. Are they getting enough to eat? Did that Social Security card finally come in?
When the group thins out, Hamm heads across the parking lot to talk to Dan Marscher, a Clearwater police officer she works with on a near-daily basis. She has an update of her own.
“I’m officially homeless,” she says, leaning against the door of the patrol car, her frizzy red hair spilling over her navy polo.
Marscher shakes his head. As a homeless outreach worker, Hamm has devoted herself to keeping people off the street.
“Damn, that’s depressing,” he eventually offers.
It’s a situation that’s becoming disturbingly common across Tampa Bay. As skyrocketing rents and record inflation force people out of stable housing, the organizations — and workers — that serve the homeless are facing a crisis of their own, said April Lott, the CEO of Directions for Living, the nonprofit where Hamm works.
Lott and her colleagues at other nonprofits are losing employees who are being priced out, she said.
Hamm, 59, found out two months ago that her rent was going up $800. Even with a recent promotion and raise, she isn’t making nearly enough to pay the $2,100 rent and to cover expenses. For the moment, she’s couch surfing between apartments where her son and boyfriend live.
Tampa Bay’s infrastructure for helping the homeless was already spread thin before the pandemic, but in the current circumstances it is at a critical point.
“It is unconscionable … (to have) my agency in particular, but the system as a whole in general, saying, ‘We can’t serve you. We can’t help you,’” Lott said.
“A bad storm”
Since 1982, Directions for Living has provided a range of services to the most vulnerable populations in the Pinellas County area, including referrals to shelters for people living on the street, assistance for renters falling behind on payments and counseling for families and people struggling with mental health.
In the last few months, requests for these services have risen sharply. Directions for Living was serving 10 to 15 homeless families per month before the pandemic. They are now seeing nearly 80. For homeless seniors, calls are up by over 400%.
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“First it was the pandemic, now it’s all in the rental crisis,” said Elijah Mitchell, who does street outreach for the organization. Mitchell has two full-time jobs and is struggling to make ends meet.
If anyone knows just how widespread Tampa Bay’s homelessness crisis has become, it’s Hamm.
“When you go to get your food service now, they’re homeless,” Hamm says. “The lady that’s cleaning your hotel room that you came down here to vacation (in), they’re homeless.”
“This is happening in real time.”
The homeless services industry comprises a web of nonprofits that provide wide-ranging and overlapping services. At any given moment, a staff member at one organization will refer a client to another, depending on the client’s needs: a temporary shelter bed for a single person or family, a substance abuse detox, longer-term transitional housing or food and rental assistance.
At organizations across the region, all beds are full at any given time, and waitlists can stretch for months, staff said. Extra buckets of funding set aside at the height of the pandemic to temporarily house families and other high-risk groups have been exhausted or expired, leaving shelters with fewer beds as the need for them soars.
Jennifer Stracick, executive director of ALPHA House, a nonprofit working to prevent homelessness among pregnant women, new mothers and babies, says her organization has seen more than a 50% uptick in calls from mothers facing eviction due to job loss or rent increases.
“We are getting calls that we cannot accommodate, that are people that are losing their jobs, and they just can’t afford to live,” Stracick said. “They’re just desperate.”
Earlier this month, Grace House, Pinellas’ largest shelter for families, closed its doors after losing funding.
Across the bay in Hillsborough County, the situation is no different.
“If it’s not a perfect storm, it’s a bad storm,” said Tim Marks, CEO of Tampa-based Metropolitan Ministries, citing a combination of higher costs for food, labor and logistics, and increased instability. These factors have turned people who once donated to the organization into clients.
Metropolitan Ministries’ nearly 300 units of affordable housing across Hillsborough and Pasco counties are full, and they have received over 1,600 requests for emergency shelter in the last four months alone.
When asked about how the homeless people they serve felt, Lott, Stracick, Marks and their colleagues throughout the region all come back to the same few words: “frustration,” “desperation,” “hopelessness.”
More than just a job
Hamm refuses to let herself get to that point.
Despite the overwhelming surge in demand and her own precarious circumstances, she manages to approach her work with an optimism and no-nonsense pragmatism.
Her secret? A determination not to cast judgment on anyone she meets — not Tony, who “has a rap sheet of five pages,” or Mary, who made a beeline for a crack house the minute she got out of detox.
Hamm approaches her outreach with a radical egalitarianism, and she refuses to draw distinctions between herself and the people she serves.
“It’s not (just a job),” she says, “because you look out here, and this could be family members. It could be my grandkids sleeping in a car.”
Hamm raised two kids as a single mom in Kentucky, bringing her youngest with her 23 years ago when she moved down to Florida and took a job at a call center. Her descendants are spread out between the two states, but she does all she can to keep them close — the names of her six grandchildren are tattooed on her forearms, and little Grayson, her 1-year-old great-grandson, is inscribed on her ankle.
Her last Thursday morning check-in complete, Hamm bounces back over to her silver Hyundai and pulls out of St. Vincent de Paul.
Mixed in with the snack packs Hamm carries in her car for homeless people are cardboard boxes filled with her own possessions, left over from recent trips back and forth to the storage space.
By midday, Hamm has pulled her car into the lot at Crest Lake Park. On the grassy median between the seven unruly lanes of Gulf to Bay Boulevard and the small body of water that anchors the park, two middle-aged men fiddle with their bicycles under a palm tree.
One of them, shirtless with a deeply lined, tan face, missing teeth and long, stringy hair, breaks into a grin and gives Hamm a friendly wave. It’s Hillbilly. He says he’s about to go dumpster diving behind the Church’s Chicken across the street.
Hamm offers Hillbilly a smoke from her pack of 305s, and they make their way back to her car.
As they walk together, Hillbilly says he’s too tired to make the 2-mile trek to Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church for a free dinner, and besides, he needs to go steal some socks for himself first.
Hamm pops the trunk and pulls a fresh pair out of a Ziploc bag for him. Then a packet of tuna, a cup of applesauce, a tube of sunscreen.
She watches Hillbilly speed away on his bike.
In the homeless services industry, this ethos of improvisation is embodied by a tactic called “diversion.” The idea is to use whatever resources are available to get someone off the street as quickly as possible — and prevent them from worsening their situation.
On any given day, this could mean driving someone to a homeless shelter, buying them a bus or plane ticket back to a city where family can house them, writing a check to cover a month’s utility bills or carrying out any number of other spur-of-the-moment interventions.
With limited resources and growing need, homeless services organizations are being forced to turn the logic of diversion inward and apply it to their own overextended budgets.
For Stracick at ALPHA House, that means going without an administrative assistant and a life skills counselor.
At Metropolitan Ministries, Marks has shifted their rental assistance voucher program from paying clients’ full rent to covering just half. They’ve been forced to cut the number of requests they accept by nearly 50%.
At a certain point, the money is either there, or it’s not.
Metropolitan Ministries saw a 25% decrease in private donations last month from the amount they received a year ago. They’ve gone nearly five times over their normal budget for food and are still seeing empty shelves in their pantry.
At Directions for Living, Lott worries about Tampa Bay’s homelessness crisis spiraling further.
“My fear is what they are beginning to see in other much larger cities,” Lott said. “People are literally just lining the streets because they have no other place to go.”
“This is really happening”
It’s the end of Hamm’s shift, and she sits in her car in the Directions for Living parking lot as rain batters the windshield.
After hours spent using every resource at her disposal to get people off the street, she must now begin negotiating her own reality.
That means more trips to the storage space, stashing her prized possessions — photo albums from family trips across Kentucky, the fawning poem her son wrote at 16 to convince her to buy him a car, the vast collection of 3,000 DVDs she’s accumulated over the years. All stuffed in an anonymous cubby behind a heavy metal door.
“I saw people pulling up to the storage unit yesterday, just to get clothes and personal items, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is really happening,’ you know. ‘This is really it,’” Hamm said.