Workers put the finishing touches on a playground for children at Metropolitan Ministries' new family housing unit. Miracle Place will provide housing for 52 homeless families while they work to find permanent homes. JIM REED/STAFF
TAMPA - When the idea of doubling shelter space for homeless families first emerged at Metropolitan Ministries two years ago, the number of people surviving on the streets in Hillsborough County was in full bloom.
Thousands lived in camps, under bridges, in cheap hotels paying night to night. Families slept in cars, tents and vacant structures. Seven out of every 10 living on the streets were with no shelter at all.
But as new space for homeless families was being built, the number of homeless dropped.
Miracle Place, a $23 million transitional housing project that includes 52 new apartments, was planned as homelessness here reached all-time highs. Now that the shelter is nearly done, the number of Hillsborough County homeless counted in two surveys earlier this year has dwindled dramatically.
Still, ministry officials say, the apartments will not go empty.
"The needs still are great for families," said Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries. "The numbers are down for the chronically homeless ... but the numbers are going in the other direction for families; families that are doubling up on couches of relatives or sleeping in cars. We see those families and we haven't seen any decreases in their numbers."
In three weeks, residents on the waiting list will begin moving in to the new transitional housing complex. Those families are supposed to be there for no more than a year. During that time, they are encouraged to become independent through education and job training and save the money they make for when they move out on their own.
Forty-one-year-old Justine Pierre has been homeless for three years and, along with her two teenage daughters, has been at Metropolitan Ministries for nine months. She was on the list to be moved to the new apartments, but got some good news on Wednesday.
She was approved for public housing and will head out on her own as soon as she can. During her stay at Metropolitan Ministries, she finished up her education as a medical assistant and is hopeful she can land work. She's glad for those moving in to the new housing, but happier for herself, she said.
She had hit rock bottom when she came to Metropolitan Ministries in October for help.
"A resident here told me to keep in school," she said, "and not to give up."
So another family will take her spot in Miracle Place, which includes an educational child care center, a dining facility, counseling and activity rooms and a new playground.
Metropolitan Ministries provides emergency food, clothing and educational resources to as many as 1,000 people a month, said ministry spokeswoman Gwen Harmon.
"This is unique," she said. "Other cities do it, but not as well as we do."
Homeless counts are undertaken every two years and in 2011, Hillsborough County counted more than 4,000 people on the streets, according to a recently revised tally issued by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. Earlier this year, fewer than 2,000 homeless were counted.
Still, social services for the homeless aren't seeing fewer people lining up for shelters or meals, homeless advocates say, especially homeless families.
The report from the Florida Council on Homelessness said the state ranks third in the country for homeless people, with 8.7 percent of the nation's homeless living here. In Florida, two-thirds of the homeless are unsheltered and live on the streets, the report said, and many are families.
"Nationally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports homelessness amongst families with children as the fastest-growing homeless population," the report said. "This is also true for Florida. For school year 2011-12, Florida's public schools identified 63,685 students as homeless. This includes families that have lost their housing and are staying with family and friends."
Harmon said transitional housing for families is key in reducing homelessness and that's what Miracle Place offers. Other phases of the project include a rehabilitation of the 25-year-old Family Care Center, a shelter that currently provides temporary housing to 50 adults and 100 children on any given night.
The board of directors for Metropolitan Ministries, which has been offering shelter and assistance for the homeless for 41 years, kicked in $5 million for the project, and every staff member and board member donated, said Marks, the president.
"What's unique is that we have 50,000 active donors and hundreds of volunteers who wrap their arms around at-risk families," he said. "I've not seen a community give like this community gives.