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Despite the bleakness of the situation with the homeless in the United States, where e-snap computer snafus have disrupted U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding and sequestration has cut budgets everywhere, there are some promising practices to be found. In Seminole County, Florida, one of the hardest hit areas, collaborations between governments, universities, nonprofits and faith-based entities have woven inter-relationships which are creating solutions where few existed.
Seminole County, Florida has been hard hit because of many reasons, including Florida’s high unemployment rate, the high foreclosure rate of Florida (second in the nation per CBS) and the high number of children in Florida. Despite the federal government’s rapid rehousing and economic recovery programs, the numbers of the homeless keep growing. Most of them are children under the age of 8 years old. There are more than 1,100 homeless families in Seminole County according to the Families in Transition (FIT) Office of the Seminole County Public Schools. However, this number does not capture the big picture because it only counts families with school age children. Pre-school age siblings, children younger than age 4, are not tracked by FIT nor are families without children or single men and women. Once you learn to see the homeless these often-invisible members of society are everywhere, under overpasses, asleep in the libraries, languishing on bus benches. Sunburnt babies and toddlers cling to bleak women with cardboard signs who are begging in traffic.
Seminole County is also been hard hit because of its lack of resources. There is only one shelter in the county with a total of 40 beds. There is no foster care group home in the county. Some elementary schools have more than 100 homeless children each. The statistics showing there are more 200 children per grade in elementary school show dramatic drops to below 100 after the age of 16 because of teens dropping out of school. The seeds of the next generation of poverty are planted when those teens drop out to support their families.
Nationally, experts in the field of early learning, homelessness and related fields warn of the staggering consequences of homelessness on children. They warn of quadruple the probability of developmental delays in children because the opening windows of learning cannot be focused on by a stressed out baby with a stressed out, depressed mother. The brain’s circuits are busy as the infant struggles to adapt to a toxic environment. They warn that mental health issues are tripled, particularly for diagnoses related to trauma, anxiety and depression. Learning disabilities and academic delays are reported at 1.5 years of academic loss by each incident of becoming homeless. Some of the elementary schools in Seminole County have more than 200 homeless children each. Predictably the “successful” school scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) criteria will be hard hit with that many children whose disordered lives are sucking them down into poverty and academic failure.
Trying to stem this tide of hopelessness, a handful of people from diverse careers banded together to seek solutions. A university professor wrote a national AmeriCorps grant in order to help a church create a Family Advocacy Office. This office recruits and trains lay people to become volunteer case managers, mobilized at the direction of the public school’s homeless liaison social worker. Using nonprofit services, governmental funding, public donations and faith-based resources, the basics of life and the building blocks of future self-sufficiency are gathered for each family. Each one teaches one, providing one-on-one mentoring to the parents. All the local resources were put in a database that is user friendly, called Resource Point.
Two other initiatives were undertaken by this Family Advocacy Office. The staff of the Early Learning Coalition, the homeless liaison of the school staff and the Family Advocacy staff created a task force which will be soliciting donations of child care slots from the local child care providers. Without child care, parents cannot seek or keep work. There are hundreds of children on the waiting list for the limited governmental funding of child care.
Another initiative the Family Advocacy Office is launching is a crockpot campaign to teach families to stretch their food stamp dollars while providing nutritionally appropriate meals. For families who lack transportation and access to affordable food markets, the “junk food” diet is often their only viable option.
In these dire times of scarcity in governmental funding, foundation grants and lean local funding, it is through merging all resources and entities that the job is going to get done. No community can afford to have 2,000 plus disenfranchised children going hungry and homeless. The predictable consequences will be heavier demands on deep end and more costly interventions in special education, hospitals, mental health facilities, jails and prisons.
Hungry, homeless children cannot make learning a priority. Yet is only through education that these children will escape the trap of poverty. When we want and expect these children to be law abiding, contributing citizens, we better have an answer to their question “Where were you when I was hungry and homeless as a child?” Our answer needs to be “Next to you, helping you succeed.”
Hats off to the University of Central Florida’s Center for Nonprofit Management, Northland Church’s Family Advocacy Office and the Families in Transition Office of Seminole County Public Schools for a promising practice that benefits homeless families and their community. It is through merging the efforts of government, university, nonprofit and faith-based organizations that this enormous task can be accomplished.
Author: Patricia Dobarganes, MSW