CLEARWATER — From transitional housing to free healthcare, there are countless resources available for poor families in Pinellas County. However, those resources don’t serve their purpose when the community and those who represent its interests aren’t educated about them.
That’s why members from the Pinellas County School Board will join the Juvenile Welfare Board’s and County Commissioners’ Health and Human Services Coordinating Council to oversee the efficiency of existing resources.
“We really need to get a better understanding of what’s already available so we can better coordinate,” said School Board member Terry Krassner. “There’s a lot of overlap we don’t even know about.”
The need for those resources is also bigger than county leaders may ever know, as many homeless are fearful of being identified, said Michael Raposa, executive director of the south Pinellas homeless shelter St. Vincent de Paul. There are currently 3,400 registered students in the Pinellas County School System that have been identified as homeless, but officials estimate that number is only one-third of the total population of students that are either couch surfing or moving from shelter to shelter.
“I don’t know about you, but that fact keeps me up at night,” Raposa said.
The coordinating council was developed by the city council, the JWB, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to help foster collaboration between county agencies and break down silos of resources, said County Commissioner Karen Seel. The group meets twice a year as a whole, with an administrative board meeting every other month to share collected data on at-risk populations, work together to fund collaborative projects and better determine the needs of the community.
“Another advantage I see is having us all informed of the same things,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala. “As we go about our work each day there are so many people we come into contact with asking us how to get help.”
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch suggested expanding the group even more to include representatives from individual cities, many of which would be asked to fund the ideas the group creates.
In addition to the joint committee, an educational campaign spearheaded by students at The Art Institute of Tampa will expand across the state next year. The True Face campaign includes billboards, print ads and public service announcements showing statistics on the area’s homeless and the support organizations hoping to change them.
The school district is looking to partner with Hillsborough County-based organization Starting Right, Now, to provide more services to homeless teenagers, and a new Bayside Health Campus in Clearwater is set to open next spring to provide no-cost healthcare to homeless individuals and families.
The resources already in place in Pinellas County are the “envy of the state,” Raposa said. The average time an individual spends in a transitional housing program in the county is only 23 days, shelter can be procured for about $5.25 a night, multiple mental and physical health services are available for free and a hot meal for less than $1.
“The poor and homeless outnumber us, and they always will,” Raposa said. “Every year we’re dealing with the same problem and they just keep coming … We can do far more collectively that any of us can do alone.”