Invisible Crisis: In Pinellas, dearth of emergency shelters is a crisis for homeless families

Ariana Turner, 22, plays with her daughter, Namine Cowell, 2 at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Family Residence in St. Petersburg Wednesday, May 31, 2017.   Turner and her daughter are living at the shelter after falling on hard times. "I just want a place to call home," said Turner. LARA CERRI   |   Times
Ariana Turner, 22, plays with her daughter, Namine Cowell, 2 at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Family Residence in St. Petersburg Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Turner and her daughter are living at the shelter after falling on hard times. "I just want a place to call home," said Turner. LARA CERRI | Times
Published June 18, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Baby in tow, Ariana Turner followed her boyfriend to Florida about 20 months ago to chase dreams of a better life.

They never found it. He ended up out of work. They wore out their welcome at his aunt's. They went their separate ways.

Last month, Turner and her daughter, Namine, now 2, found themselves homeless.

They ended up at a shelter run by the St. Petersburg Free Clinic.

"I was scared," Turner, 22, said, "because it's my first time in a shelter."

In Pinellas County, a homeless family that ends up in a shelter is one of the fortunate few.

That's because the county is in the throes of a homeless family crisis, officials said. There's a severe shortage of emergency shelter beds to help parents with children who have recently lost their homes.

"It doesn't seem like a crisis to us (as a community), because we don't see families on the streets," said Susan Myers, CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board. "It is a crisis to those who are working on crisis lines, because they are often the first point of contact."

2013 HILLSBOROUGH HOMELESS INVESTIGATION: The Tampa Bay Times spent six months investigating Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program, a little-known government initiative launched in 1989 to provide safe havens for the poor. Instead, the Times found, it spent millions of tax dollars housing the homeless in filthy, crime-ridden slums.

It is a crisis that caught Pinellas off-guard. That may be because the community spent years addressing the other homeless crisis: adults who sleep on sidewalks and streets, panhandle and wheel shopping carts piled with their belongings.

"I believe for the past 20-plus years, the system has been focused on individuals," said St. Vincent de Paul CEO Michael Raposa, whose Catholic charity aids the homeless. "The crisis with families is new and the crisis came to be so fast that the system didn't have the time to adjust and to restructure itself."

Pinellas had an estimated 1,984 homeless family members during the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to the latest count available from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. That's 17 percent of the county's total homeless population of 11,843.

Most of those family members were children: 1,214.

But there were only 185 emergency shelter beds for families.

The problem is even worse than that, however, because the homeless count doesn't include dozens of families and hundreds of children who are harder to track.

HUD doesn't count families scraping by week-to-week in cheap motels, who use the sofas and spare bedrooms of family and friends, who sleep in their own vehicles — or even in tents in the woods.

That's why homeless families are nearly invisible, officials said. Social workers go to the parking lots of Walmarts and hospital emergency rooms to find those sleeping in their vehicles. Families park there so they can be near restrooms.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Some parents intentionally avoid the social services system, believing (wrongly) that they'll lose their kids if the authorities discover that they're homeless.

A homeless family in Pinellas also faces another hardship: There is no emergency shelter that can take in a family that shows up on its doorstep. The county has a shelter where a homeless adult can walk in and spend the night. But to spend the night in one of those 185 family shelter beds, families must be screened and placed on waiting lists.

It is a process that does not guarantee that they will find a place anytime soon.

The result is scenes like this one at the St. Petersburg Salvation Army:

"Families come to the doorstep with kids just trying to see if we have space," social services director Holly Harmon said. "They are standing in front of us and we have no solution."

The shelter has just enough room for six families. It is always full.

Now imagine that scene repeating itself across Pinellas County.

The homeless family crisis is fueled by low wages and a dearth of affordable housing.

In Pinellas, 41 percent of residents live paycheck-to-paycheck. That's according to a recent United Way ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report.

"They can't afford the housing we have," said St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster, who chairs the homeless leadership board.

A hot real estate market has sent rents soaring. New housing stock, such as apartments, are too expensive. Traditionally cheaper sources of housing, such as trailer parks, are in short supply.

"Many families are one or two paychecks from being homeless,." Myers said.

A customer service job didn't keep Cathy Henderson, 41, and her three children from being evicted from their Largo apartment in 2013.

Her estranged husband, injured in two car accidents, could not keep up with child support. Then her car engine died.

"I was going to school and working," she said. "It got to a point when I couldn't do it anymore.

"The only option I had was a motel that was located near a strip joint."

It was on U.S. 19, near the public bus route she needed to use every day. She had to get her three children to their north county schools and get to her job in St. Petersburg.

She didn't consider her family homeless because they had a motel roof over their heads. Still, she was too embarrassed to let anyone know of their plight.

One week, when she couldn't pay the rent, she found a sticky note on her motel room door. It said "Resurrection House" and had a phone number.

"I never knew how it got here," she said, choking up as she told her story.

Florida Resurrection House is a 30-year-old, faith-based, transitional housing community in St. Petersburg, where families can get counseling, job training and a fresh start.

The Henderson family moved into their apartment on Nov. 16, 2013, after four months of being homeless.

The mother said being homeless took a toll on her family. Her son, Michael, now 12, started pulling out his hair. They had no kitchen, so she ended up buying more expensive food that she could prepare in the microwave.

She started losing her hair, too, because of the stress.

Stability has done wonders for them. Now Michael is thriving with his father in Pennsylvania. Daughter Keyana, 20, is in her second year at St. Petersburg College. Caleena, 17, will start St. Petersburg Collegiate High School in the fall.

The Henderson family's plight exemplified another aspect of the crisis: most of those affected are children.

This year local, state and federal agencies dedicated $3.1 million toward a Pinellas rapid rehousing program aimed at quickly finding homes, jobs, childcare and drug and alcohol counseling for the homeless.

The Pinellas School District said it taught 3,508 homeless children in the 2015-16 school year, the same year as HUD's latest count. This past school year, that rose by 14 percent to 3,991 homeless children — the highest in five years.

That increase is likely due to school officials identifying more students as homeless, and includes children who live on their own, without families. The district's most recent count is not yet official, and used a different methodology from HUD.

Cliff Smith, St. Petersburg's manager of veterans, social and homeless services, said children often end up sharing rooms, and even beds, with other families.

"Sometimes in motels, families would double up with each other," he said. "They have kids sleeping on the floors, together in one bed."

Sara Dayton and her 9-year-old son, Nathan, were evicted from their home in 2013.

"I had issues with alcohol and drugs," Dayton, 33, said, "and couldn't get back on my feet after being evicted.

"It was a cycle of living with other people and having to leave and then living with other people and having to leave and never having a place of our own."

They were homeless for about 18 months. She had been sober and drug-free for about six months in 2014, when she heard of Resurrection House.

But to get in, she had to be off drugs and alcohol for an entire year. Her ex-boyfriend's brother let her and Nathan live with his family until she could qualify.

They were admitted in September 2015. She now works as a server at a Pinellas Park IHOP and saved enough to finance a loan for a new car.

But after 20 months of living at Resurrection House, the Daytons are still there.

So are the Hendersons, who have lived there for 3½ years.

Both families are still getting back on their feet. Neither can afford to leave yet.

Sara Dayton is completing her associate's degree at St. Petersburg College using a homeless fee and tuition waiver. Resurrection House is letting her stay until she can make it on her own.

Cathy Henderson plans to resume her studies at Pinellas Technical College later this year. She will also remain at the shelter, but as a staff member.

Their stories underscore just how hard it is for homeless families to get back into permanent homes.

Some believe the solution to fighting homelessness is not a patchwork of social programs, but rather the Department of Housing and Urban Development's rapid rehousing program.

The program's goal is exactly what it sounds like: "Rapid rehousing is getting people in housing as quickly as possible," Myers said.

This year, local, state and federal agencies in Pinellas have dedicated $3.1 million for programs aimed at quickly finding homes, jobs, childcare and drug and alcohol counseling for the homeless.

"We could fund all we have in rapid rehousing," Foster said, "but if we don't have affordable housing, that doesn't fix the problem either."

It's hard to imagine a time when the Tampa Bay region wasn't searching for answers to the homeless problem. At times, the solutions made things worse.

In 2007, St. Petersburg police officers infamously slashed homeless tents to break up a downtown encampment. In the aftermath, the Diocese of St. Petersburg and local governments created Pinellas Hope, a tent city on 10 acres at the edge of Pinellas Park.

In 2011, fed up with scores of transients panhandling, sleeping on sidewalks and taking up space at the jail, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and other agencies converted an unused jail annex into the Pinellas Safe Harbor emergency shelter. Now any adult can walk in off the street and find a bed there.

In 2013, the Tampa Bay Times found that Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery Program spent millions housing the homeless in crime-ridden, dangerous and filthy slums across Tampa. County employees lost their jobs and the homeless program was revamped.

Last year, St. Petersburg's infamous Mosley Motel, the city's home of last resort for the impoverished, closed. As many as 400 people, including the elderly, the infirm and dozens of families with children living week-to-week, had to find new places to live.

Social services worked to find them permanent homes. Some were fortunate. Many were not.

That's because families were forced to seek shelter in a system that wasn't designed for them. The creation of the tent city in 2007 and the jail-turned-shelter in 2011 was meant for homeless adults — not children and families.

"That was an emergency-type situation we were faced with," Smith said of those past efforts.

"We had about 100 people sleeping on the City Hall steps. Those of us who live in St. Petersburg remember stepping over bodies at night. There were no beds."

As a result, few resources were dedicated to families. Consider the imbalance: In 2015-16, the 9,859 homeless adults in Pinellas had 1,055 emergency shelter beds they could use on any given night. Compare that to the 185 shelter beds for families.

Even that number can be misleading. St. Vincent de Paul's Raposa explained that his shelter has 21 rooms that each hold up to six beds — but there isn't room for 126 family members. For safety reasons, only one family can stay in each room. So the shelter really only has room for 21 families who must be referred to St. Vincent de Paul and get on a waiting list.

Exacerbating the problem is that the county lost a family shelter when the YWCA Family Village ended its program in 2015. And there are no new shelters in the works.

Smith believes that what Pinellas badly needs is a Safe Harbor for families, an emergency shelter "where they can go, even in the middle of the night."

But there is currently no effort, or funding, to create such a shelter.

Relief is nowhere in sight.

"Every shelter bed is full and you can get on a waiting list," Smith said, "but you're talking about families with children on a waiting list."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes