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New hope for young homeless

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 09:41 PM

On a March morning in 2009, volunteers with the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County fanned out for a comprehensive survey of the homeless.

In the process, they found 1,700 children in public schools who didn't have a permanent place to stay.

That's more than any county in the state, social workers say. Hillsborough County, with nearly 10,000 homeless men, women and children, has a higher percentage of homeless people than any other Florida county.

The economy may be the biggest cause, the coalition has said. Half of the homeless surveyed said they are without a permanent place to live because of employment or other financial hardships. And, the coalition said, nearly a quarter of the homeless in Hillsborough are children.

The count of 1,700 homeless students is conservative, said Kathy Wiggins, a former school social worker who now heads a fledgling program designed specifically to help homeless youth. She said the school district reports as many as 3,000 students - out of nearly 200,000 in all - don't have permanent homes.

To be fair, she said, state and federal authorities have different definitions of homelessness. Is a child living with parents in a hotel room homeless? How about a parentless teenager living with a neighbor?

Though that may explain some of the discrepancies in the numbers, it doesn't change the fact that many students enrolled in schools don't have permanent homes. And the figures don't include teenagers living on the streets not registered in schools.

The program got its startup funds from the LazyDays Employees Foundation. The employee group has pledged $350,000 over the next five years. Wiggins hopes to begin accepting clients within a few months. The aim is to help homeless children, teens and young adults in a number of ways, including reuniting them with family members - even if they are far-flung, distant relatives, and keeping them out of foster care and off the streets, where many turn to crime to survive.

"We want them to know they can talk to someone who will listen," Wiggins said.

The program will offer solutions, she said, but won't force kids into any situations.

"They decide how they want to go," she said, "and I tell them let me open up this door, let me crack open this window, let me open this avenue for you."

Plenty of services and state and federal monies are available for homeless children, but navigating the bureaucracy can be daunting. Administering the project is Hillsborough Kids, which is savvy in securing government and charitable grants to fund its programs.

Reaching out to the unreachable

Homeless children often are reluctant to talk about their situations, Wiggins said.

When she was a counselor at Leto High School a few years ago, a star soccer player there kept the fact that he was homeless from just about everyone.

He came into the country with relatives in Miami. They abandoned him, and he had been living with friends and acquaintances ever since, she said.

Federal law allowed him to attend high school, even though he was an illegal immigrant, but he couldn't take advantage of offers for college athletic scholarships. When he graduated at 17, he was on his own, Wiggins said.

She helped him secure employment and an immigration attorney, she said, and now the young man has an apartment and is taking classes at Hillsborough Community College.

She still checks on him, she said. "I'm not giving up."

Harold Oehler, with the LazyDays Employees Foundation, said the idea for the program came from Zach Bonner, the Valrico boy who created a foundation to help homeless children.

It is made up solely of employees of the RV giant, Oehler said. They have pledged $70,000 a year for five years to get the project off the ground.

"We looked at other cities and saw that they have centers where homeless kids can get help navigating the complicated array of services," Oehler said. Tampa had none.

Homeless teens face the real-life issues of pregnancy, drugs and crime, he said - especially those without parents or guardians.

"Our kids don't have options of education, housing or employment," he said. "They turn to crime to survive. Once they get a criminal record, we are spending money incarcerating them or putting them on welfare." The money spent up front could save money spent on them later, he said.

Offices are being set up in Hillsborough Kids Inc. buildings. Jeff Rainey, the agency's executive director, said the Tampa Bay area needs such a program. Homeless youths without parents "need support, and they need some navigation help. The big thing is support," Rainey said.

He said different agencies address varying aspects of homelessness among young people in Hillsborough County. The new program will "bring all agencies together that can have a hand in helping."

"We want to get them early," Rainey said. "We're starting small. We want to be able to intervene in these kids' lives before they head down the wrong paths."


Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760.

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