A Two Way Street: Understanding Homelessness In the Big Bend

May 9, 2018

Credit Mihály Köles / Unsplash

Just like the people who suffer from it, the reasons for homelessness in the Big Bend are complicated. What ultimately stays constant is that diverse groups of individuals are stuck in unstable situations.

On the corner of West Pensacola and Dupree you can find groups of people scattered about at all times of the day. What looks like a busy street corner is really an outpour of homeless individuals from a building further up the road.

Tucked behind large hedges and warehouses is the Kearney Center, an emergency shelter for adults dealing with homelessness.

Credit The Kearney Center

Inside, the carpet flooring, soothing colors, and friendly receptionist may fool you into thinking you’ve entered a resort. But as the line of homeless people starts forming out the door, it becomes apparent the state of the art building is part of a larger operation. One of the people in that line is Angel.

“Everybody think that, that we got it made cause we veterans,” Angel says.

He’s a resident at the Kearney Center who also volunteers and works there. Angel is an example of the diverse people who are classified as homeless. He is a Veteran with a degree from Syracuse University. He says anyone is susceptible to becoming homeless.

“We don’t. We all gonna go through the same thing as people who’s not a veteran. You got people who’s not veteran; they struggle just like everybody else do,” Angel says.

He and his wife have been in and out of the Kearney Center for three years. They originally came to Tallahassee to live with his daughter before moving to the center, where they got help finding a home last year.

But, due to its poor condition, they returned to the center to work on getting into a better home. He says that’s one reason he’s so grateful for the Kearney Center.

“Well it’s hard for anyone being homeless, because if you sleep in the streets, you ain’t gonna have nowhere to sleep in the streets. They gotta look at it- out there in there in the streets it’s a lot of things going on. You sleep in the bushes, you’re gonna have problems. So it’s better for these people here to open they hand to help us to get on our feet. Oh yeah, I appreciate that.”

At its core, the Kearney Center is a transitional program that tries to help people find more stable living conditions. Kearney Center director Jacob Reiter explains what services the facility provides to ensure that.

“We have case managers who work with individuals on attaining more stable housing. We also have three meals a day, it’s actually over 900 meals a day we serve. We have a clinic operation, so we have nurses in the evening to provide basic medical services, helping fill prescription medications, help people feel better, addressing their health concerns. We actually just added a dental office so we’re now providing dental services,” Reiter says.

In recent years, demand for those services has increased, along with rising numbers of homeless individuals in the Big Bend region.

“When we opened three years ago we were averaging maybe 220 people per night. Right now we’re averaging 375 people a night,” Reiter says.

The Big Bend Continuum of Care is a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating a network of agencies across the region to advocate for the homeless.

Their yearly homeless count, which is a large volunteer effort that tries to track down homeless individuals across the region in the span of a single night, has shown yearly increases in homelessness over the past five years.

But, the most recent count revealed a decrease. Around nine-hundred homeless individuals were recorded, one hundred fewer than last year.

But, Raquel Wells, who aggregates data for the Big Bend Continuum of Care’s homeless count, says the decrease is due to a change in classification standards.

“In previous years, though we’ve done a way more in depth assessment, it really goes into more sensitive questions. Asking do you do certain things for money? Things like that. Just real uncomfortable in a sense. And so we were finding that, that survey was taking folks 20 to 30 minutes a person to do. And so we kind of trimmed it down a bunch, and stuck to the HUD requirements," Wells says. 

Aligning survey questions and standards to those of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development eliminated many people who would have been classified as homeless in previous years.

On top of this, the count experienced a large number of rejections along with only three of the eight counties in the Big Bend participating in this year, creating many overlooked outliers.

One of those overlooked homeless subgroups, Wells stresses, is families.

“Families are kind of like the homeless group you don’t really see. They’re not the guy in the corner that everyone sees and stereotypes as being homeless. They’re the ones that are in shelter places, they’re bunked up, they’re in their cars. You just don’t see it as much. However, are numbers are showing something different because we do have a family emergency shelter here, and they are almost always at capacity. So that does indicate to us we have an issue with family homelessness here.”

Of the many homeless subgroups reported in the count, families experiencing homelessness in the Big Bend region were the only group that mimicked the fluctuating total homeless numbers. Wells says the relationship between family homelessness and total homelessness is no coincidence.

“The majority of folks that are experiencing homelessness are not actually individuals. They’re families and children. They make up, I wanna say, nationwide the number is somewhere around  60 percent of homeless individuals, homeless populations,” Wells says. 

The increase in homeless families has created a movement, with several outreach programs forming in Leon County that address the ongoing rise.

Credit Big Bend Homeless Coalition Youtube

Tila Wilson is a resident at Hope Community, the largest emergency shelter for families in Leon County. She and her son have been at the shelter since October after budget cuts forced the hotel Wilson worked for to let her go.

Wilson is a college graduate with an Associates of Arts in Business administration and a minor in medical billing and coding.

“It made me overqualified for some jobs, and there are just some positions I will not take. I was like, I can’t do 8.50. I mean if I can do at least 10 dollars an hour for it to be realistic in this world. I could possibly see myself moving out and having my own place and being able to pay all the bills good, At a job making 8.50, I would definitely need two jobs,” Wilson says.

Wilson’s situation is likely familiar to many families experiencing homelessness in the Big Bend.

Marie Vanenberg is the program director for Hope. She says the only thing keeping families from homelessness is a bad day.

"Your car breaks down, you cannot afford to fix it, you cannot get to your job, you lose your job. It is a snowball."

Going Places is an outreach program for homeless youth and at risk teens in Leon County. Its headquarters in Frenchtown has the charm of a childhood home. A large porch with rocking chairs, arts and crafts projects scattered about, a living room with board games and TV, and dozens of kids coming in and out.  

Credit Andrew Quintana / WFSU

The small home is a safe haven for children who may need a place to shower, eat, apply for jobs, or hangout.

But, Erin Foley, a Street Outreach Advocate for Going Places, says the program finds itself helping entire families experiencing homelessness almost as much as it helps children.

“Not every kid that we work with is independent. Not every kid that we work with is an unaccompanied youth. We work with a lot of kids who their families are experiencing homelessness. And we want to help the family unit as a whole, not just that one specific child. Because, realistically, if you help the whole family they’re all going to be better off,” Foley says.

The list of services Going Places provides is constantly expanding, but ultimately it serves as a stable place for families in unstable conditions. Conditions Foley says many of the families they work with cannot control.

“The kids are a byproduct of their family. So, a seven year old doesn’t have a choice to be homelessness or not. It’s whatever their family is experiencing or going through. And so if our community is not setting up for families to not enter homelessness, I mean unfortunately, that means one, two, three, four, five kids in that family are also entering into homelessness."

One of the ways Foley says many families are falling into homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.

“Homelessness is 100 percent in fact a housing issue. It’s not a substance abuse issue. It’s not a money issue. It’s not a- insert another excuse as to why someone is homeless here. Homelessness is 100 percent a lack of housing issue,” Foley says.

A report from the Florida Department of Health shows Leon County to be one of the worst in the state when it comes to severe housing problems and overcrowding. The average rental price for a two-bedroom apartment is $980.

The Tallahassee Housing Authority also reports that the waiting list for eligible families to receive Housing Choice Vouchers has reached 15,000.

Alison Davidson is the Project Coordinator for Families in Transition at Leon County Schools. She refers students and families to outreach programs like Going Places through a residency survey that students take home at the beginning of every school year.

“It’s asking what their primary nighttime residency is. So, it’s either they’re living in an emergency shelter, they are living in the home of another person, which is 70 percent of our population approximately is falling under that category, and that means they are doubled up. So, we have a family living with another family, and their name’s not on a lease so at any time they can be kicked out because of that,” Davidson says.

Davidson says the issue goes beyond affordable housing. She has seen many families get out of homelessness only to reenter later. It is why she believes in transitional living programs.

Transitional living programs fill the gap between homelessness and stable housing by offering supervision and financial support.

“We had, when I first came into this job, there were some transitional living programs that were a great thing, but they’ve fallen through the cracks for whatever reason, we’re not really sure. And so there’s a need for affordable housing, but I think there’s also a need for transitional living programs. And so Hope has one dorm that’s a transitional living program. But, like I said, we have like nine-hundred-and something students that are falling under this category,” Davidson says. 

Hope program Director, Marie Vanenberg says the overwhelming demand has shifted Hope’s focus away from transitional living.                                   

“Transitional has kind of faded. What they really want to do is get folks back into stable housing as quickly as possible. So, HUD is looking at shorter term stays at emergency shelters, and hopefully getting out with funding like rapid re housing,” Vanenberg says.  

Now, Hope community mainly focuses on diverting families out of the shelter by any means. This can range from calling family members to offering certification classes.

Meanwhile, Wilson, who lives at Hope with her son, says that at the end of the day, homelessness is more than just money. It is reinvention, which can be an emotional toll for those who only know one way of living.

“It is past the point of just needing money. It’s past the point of needing money, it’s past the point of needing help, it’s past the point of I need a place to stay. It is something that is embedded in a person because of the fact that now I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to go. I thought I had it all together. I have to literally start all the way back over. And that means I have to change my total reality. I have to change my total mindset.”