Bay Area's Homeless Defy Stereotypes
When many people think of a 'typical' homeless person, the picture that comes into their mind is a bum living under the highway overpass, asking for handouts.
But talk to the people who deal with the homeless every day, and they'll paint a different picture. Families whose breadwinner lost a job, forcing them out into the street. And some people making the state minimum wage of $6.40 an hour who can't afford even the cheapest apartment.
Lisa Colley fits into both of these categories. She's a smart, articulate 28-year-old who had a job as a certified nursing assistant. In December, she lost her job, and then lost her home. Colley, her husband and their two boys and two girls were forced to live in a Ford Taurus.
COLLEY: We lived in our car before we heard about the resources down here. We went to two different other places that couldn't help us, because neither one of us had a job, like the Homeless Recovery Program. You have to have a job for them to help you.
Then she heard about a program at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa. They put the family into a motel for five days. On their last day, Colley got the OK to participate in their 'Uplift You' program.
She was given a job working 10 hours a week in the Ministries' outreach program. It has given her enough leeway to attend Hillsborough Community College to get her nursing degree.
Colley is saving her money to go into transitional housing after the 18-week program ends. She says Uplift You has saved her family from a life on the street.
COLLEY: Most of the places on our resource guide that we called, either you have to come in with employment, and some places it's just no children - it's just for men, single women. Single women that's coming through here, they've talked about how they lived in the woods. And I couldn't imagine living in the woods, and how they got raped living in the woods.
Many advocates say one of the best ways to keep the homeless off the streets is to never let them get there in the first place. The Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition wants to create a 'one-stop shop' that would be sort of a central clearinghouse for social service agencies. Larry Carey is the group's chairman.
CAREY: Whether it's paying the electric bill or coming up with the security deposit for a new apartment or getting a car fixed, or helping with a health care issue - whatever it is in their life that is about to make them homeless. We need to be able to guide them to the area where they can get support.
The group failed to get money from county commissioners when they made a presentation last week. But Carey says board members told them to come back when they are better organized. He says they plan to get more businesses involved.
Carey says most of the people they want to help are not the stereotypical man living under the Interstate or pushing a grocery cart with all their belongings. That's only one of out every 10 homeless.
CAREY: The most rapidly growing part of the homeless population are women and children - frequently single mothers with children - who become homeless for a whole variety of reasons. For marital dissolution, loss of a job, sometimes nothing more complicated than having a car break down. It results in the loss of a job, results in the loss of a home. We'd really like to focus a lot of our effort on trying to establish a program for prevention. So we could stop the growth of the homeless problem, and simultaneously start to work on how to provide appropriate housing for this population.
Metropolitan Ministries now takes care of many functions of a one-stop shop - by default, because no one else is doing it. And the group exists only through the generosity of private contributions. Morris Hintzman is the ministries' president.
HINTZMAN: You can have a one-stop shop, but unless you have an 'out,' a credible solution - whether it has to do with places for people to live, which is the name of the coalition's project, 'Places for People.' Unless you have a place for people to get in off the street or you have medical attention that they need, or education - everything else that actually is part of the solution. The easiest solution to this whole nut is getting people off the street physically. But once you get them off there, now what do you do with them?
Lisa Colley is one example of what can happen to the homeless after her time living in a shelter is up. Metropolitan Ministries plans to keep tabs on her family and give them financial help until she gets her nursing degree.
COLLEY: I just hope that there's more resources that we as a community can put our minds to to actually help the homeless and to help people in my position. Because I never thought I would be in a position as this. And it does happen. It does happen.
Hintzman says there will always be homelessness and hunger, but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be new ways devised to help those who want to be helped.
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