ARTICLE: Caregivers Help Homeless Families Regain Independence

09 Nov

Homelessness among children and families is a growing problem in the Tampa Bay area, and there are many opportunities to help serve this community.

Imagine being a child again. For many, this brings back memories of a simpler time, including days at school, your family home, gatherings with friends and relatives, and exploring the world from your own backyard.

Now, imagine being a child who is homeless, and think about how that picture changes.

In 2010, this was the reality of 49,886 children in Florida. In the Tampa Bay area, the most recent data collected reveal that of the 6,235 individuals who were homeless in Pinellas County, 32 percent were children, and in Hillsborough County, 23 percent of the 17,755 homeless individuals were children.

Most homeless children experience homelessness because their parents lost housing for the family due to financial strain. According to Duggan Cooley, president of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless and president/CEO of RCS Pinellas, homeless families account for one of the fastest-growing homeless populations both locally and in the United States.

“Parents have had hours cut at work or lost jobs, there is very high unemployment among teenagers seeking work, and health care expenses are becoming unmanageable,” Cooley said. “This has created a perfect storm affecting families and eventually causing homelessness.

“Due to the continued high unemployment rate, and the compounding underemployment rate, families are remaining homeless for longer periods of time,” he said. “Wages and work hours are not enough for families to obtain and maintain quality, safe housing.”

Rayme Nuckles, chief executive officer for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County and ex parte president of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, said his group’s count of the homeless in January showed that 51 percent of the homeless in Tampa and Hillsborough County were experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Helping these families either regain housing or preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place is a community of caregivers. These individuals include family and friends along with service providers and volunteers, motivated to help families stay together and regain stability in their lives.

Family Caregivers Often First to Offer Help

One of the first lines of defense in preventing homelessness is often family members who often open their homes to their relatives experiencing homelessness, providing them a temporary, safe place to stay. For these family caregivers, this puts a great strain on not only their financial resources but also on their physical space, privacy and peace of mind.

Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, offers some advice to families who are considering opening their homes. She suggests setting clear rules, including expectations for time limits, efforts to regain self-sufficiency, assigned household responsibilities, developing schedules, addressing privacy issues and even what items and resources are to be shared, such as food and household belongings, and which are not shared. Also, she recommends making use of available community resources, which may include food banks, homeless prevention programs, and housing voucher and affordable housing programs, to help homeless families get back on their feet.

“What is most important in these situations,” Snyder says, “is to remember to prioritize the needs of the children because these are very different from adult needs.”

Homeless Children Require Particular Care

Snyder explains that many children who have experienced homelessness grow up to continue the cycle of homelessness, in part because they maintain a constant feeling of insecurity, have an aversion to owning anything and feel undeserving of security.

A few tips Snyder offers to caregivers who are assisting homeless children are:

  • Help them experience a sense of stability and belonging within their environment and family.
  • Make certain children understand rules and expectations so that they can adjust and comply instead of fearing that they may do something wrong to create more problems for the family.
  • It is important for the host family to reassure children that they have a safe, permanent place to come back to, that they are welcome and a part of things.
  • Allow children to be children — there is a difference between informing a child of circumstances and expectations versus burdening them with adult decisions and responsibilities.
  • Encourage children to play, have fun, and develop friends and support systems through school, after school programs or faith-based organizations.
  • Encourage children to develop support systems by informing schools, teachers and youth leaders of what the family is experiencing.

Children experiencing homelessness have unique needs that need to be considered when providing care for these families. Nuckles cited research from the National Center on Family Homelessness: “Homeless children are more likely to suffer from acute and chronic illness, go hungry at two times the rate as others, (have) three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems, and worry that something bad will happen to their families.”

How to Get Involved

Although there is a highly dedicated community of caregivers assisting homeless families in Tampa Bay area communities, the problem of homelessness is on the rise, and statewide funding cuts have ended many critical services and resources for these families that were available in previous years. Homeless families need the support of the whole community to help combat the devastating effects of homelessness and regain self-sufficiency.

If you would like to join this force of caregivers, there are a number of ways to get involved:

  • Make a call or visit to a program and ask, “How can I help?” You may know of a specific program serving homeless families where you would want to volunteer, or contact your community’s homeless coalition for a direct link to volunteer opportunities.
  • Many skills you already possess, such as budgeting, cooking or gardening, would be a great help to homeless families by working with them one-on-one.
  • Tutoring for children is a huge help, as homeless students often lag behind their peers in school.
  • Adults and teenagers can benefit from assistance in improving their resumes and job interviewing skills.

You don’t need to work directly with homeless families to be a caregiver and help your community. Cooley reminds us that everyone has special and unique skills they can offer to programs and organizations serving homeless families. Other volunteer needs include:

  • Painting and decorating shelter apartments as residents move out to other housing
  • Phone answering, filing, general maintenance and yard work
  • Contacting local, state and national lawmakers to let them know that funding for homeless services and homeless prevention services is a critical priority

Community resources for caregivers and homeless families alike include:

Pinellas County

Region and state


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