Antonio Smith came to Pensacola for work after the oil spill. He found steady construction work and was renting a home before he had his appendix removed and lost his job.
Now, he has a “very large” hospital bill and little to no job prospects as he lives in a tent praying for a way out.
“I’m trying to find work, but there’s nothing out there full-time. I went through some day-labor places,” he said. “Being homeless plays a big part in unemployment—you don’t have an address.”
Smith has never been homeless before. He could go back home to South Carolina, but doesn’t want to admit he needs assistance.
“I want to do it on my own,” he said. “I just turned 52, it’s kind of hard asking momma for help.”
Jessica Tipton was “stranded with nothing” when her now ex-husband left her. The end of the relationship led her through a dark path.
“I was a drug connoisseur and it rendered me homeless,” she said.
Living on the streets, she began to prostitute herself.
“Women have it harder—they don’t want to give it away, they make you work for it and they don’t care how,” Tipton said.
The valedictorian of her high school went to jail for prostitution, had her three children taken away from her and is now living in a boarding house trying to get a college degree online and get her kids back.
“It’s just a merry-go round,” Tipton said of living on the streets. “How fast can you go before falling down and throwing up?”
In 2010, 57,687 men, women and children were reported as homeless in Florida according to a report by the Florida Coalition of the Homeless. In 2009, it was 55,599.
The local numbers tend to stay relatively low, but sometimes it’s hard to tell how many people are homeless since the definition can be broad. Every year, EscaRosa Coalition of the Homeless and about 200 volunteers survey the homeless for one day in January. This survey helps EscaRosa identify the needs of the homeless in Santa Rosa and Escambia County. Last January, they surveyed 551 homeless clients. This does not count the homeless that refused to be a part of the survey, or those that live under the radar with family and friends.
What the surveyors found in the span of 24-hours was that of the 551 surveyed homeless, 426 were male, 59 were married, 101 served in the U.S. Armed Forces, 144 were a domestic violence victim and 170 said their main reason for being homeless was being unable to find work.
“What we try to do is make the entire community aware of what is happening to the homeless in our area,” said Janis Wilson, volunteer with EscaRosa Coalition of the Homeless.
The number of school-age children is higher due to child advocates—bus drivers, teachers, school administrative staff—who report children they believe are homeless—meaning they have no permanent residence.
“There was a family I met a couple of years ago, an elderly couple in Navarre whose daughter had a child and that child had a child,” Wilson said. “There were five generations living in a two bedroom condo. Pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot any night and you’ll find someone sleeping in their car.”
“There are about 3000 homeless children in Santa Rosa and Escambia County,” said John Johnson, executive director of EscaRosa Coalition of the Homeless. “That outweighs the number of homeless.”
Providing More Than Shelter
Johnson points out that a lot of the shelters are for single men. And shelters that do take men and women separate the genders, which is why families often sleep in cars rather than seek help.
“There needs to be an emphasis to provide housing for families,” he said.
EscaRosa also hosts a local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The electric client entry system helps agencies work more fluidly and relieves the stress for homeless families and individuals.
“Seeking services, they [homeless persons] only have to tell their story one time,” said Johnson. “It helps foster partnerships and to better bring our community together to create and enhance access of services to the homeless.”
Another way EscaRosa assesses the needs of the local homeless is through the Northwest Florida 211 line, a service provided by United Way. The 211 line is a resource and referral service that provides information to those in need—whatever the need may be. 211 also creates the Street Survival Guide that EscaRosa distributes, which is a booklet of community resource information.
“Our focus at 2-1-1 is to assist individuals at the level they request,” said 211 Director, Rita Icenogle. “Some need simply the location of shelters, some may need guidance on how to apply for services or defining which programs they are eligible to receive.”
In August, 211 answered 3,091 calls and in September it was 2,418. Most of the callers from both Santa Rosa and Escambia County were in need of utility bills, the second highest need was housing, whether it was someone needing shelter or help with a mortgage payment.
For Johnson, the challenge in serving the homeless is not finding them a hot meal and a place to rest, but in providing them with meaningful help that will make a lasting impact.
“You think about someone who’s been homeless for a while, without phased-in support by a case manager, you are preparing them to fail,” he said. “They face isolation challenges, mental illness and substance abuse.”
It’s not enough to give a homeless individual a job and a house. You have to teach them how to become a part of society again.
“You can compare that with a child—you have to have progress,” Wilson said.
“What you want to do is give them a hand—to be self-sufficient,” Johnson added. “I’ve got to teach you how to fish and you’ll have a meal for a lifetime. If I continue to serve you, what incentive do you have to be self-sufficient?”
HMIS and collaboration between service providers will help make a significant difference.
“It’s about warm-handoffs,” Johnson said. “If a woman comes to me and I know she may have a mental illness, it’s not enough to give her a phone number, I may need to put in a call to Lakeview,” Johnson explained. “One of my visions is to see more case managers that are dedicated not only to serving the agency, but the clients—engaging homeless clients.”
Johnson points out that agencies, such as EscaRosa, have come a long way, but there are still goals he’d like to meet.
“We still have much to do,” he said. “One, create a community of awareness among social workers. Two, for every homeless, a bed that’s available to that person. Three, resources. I would love, love, love for us to have a community of case managers to quickly take a family, that’s about to have their power turned off and no food in the fridge, and move them to a temporary or permanent place without them being enabled by hand-outs.”
Looking Past Appearance
Building confidence in those who are facing economic troubles can make a difference. Engaging homeless clients, as Johnson said, and building a trusting friendship can help in assisting the homeless.
One of those in the forefront of building relationships and confidence is Cathy Harris.
“She’s my sweetheart,” Johnson said of Harris.
By day Harris is visiting encampments and parks to dole out lunch and a short discussion from the Bible through the nonprofit she founded, Streets and Lanes Ministries. By night, she’s a registered nurse working the overnight shift in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sacred Heart Hospital.
“You get to know people from a different walk of life,” said Ashley Butler, a volunteer with Streets and Lanes. “There’s a lot that’s misunderstood about the homeless. The truth is a lot of people struggle, there’s so much more to the story.”
During the local events honoring National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (NHHAW) you can get your own sense of the homeless. At Waterfront Rescue Mission’s Thanksgiving Luncheon, City Councilman Brian Spencer presented a proclamation recognizing NHHAW.
“We hope people understand who the homeless are,” Wilson said. “They have a great deal to offer as far as talents and abilities.”
Harris knows most of her clients by name. She jokes, shares pleasantries and while the group eats their lunch—hot dogs, Cheetos and a banana—she shares a story of a lady she helped inadvertently during one of her shifts at Sacred Heart.
“I couldn’t help her, but I could take her to the one who could help,” she said. “You have to open the door to Christ, he’s not going to barge in—he’s a gentleman.”
Those who need help have to really want it to obtain it. That’s why Tipton and her boyfriend, John Fuqua are working hard to get out of the boarding house they live in and pursue careers in journalism.
Zach Tessier makes light of living on the streets. Having a positive attitude is one of the best survival tactics through any crisis.
“I’m sort of a professional tourist,” he said.
While he has no immediate plans, he does envision a future of owning a large plot of land, getting married and having a “whole lot of kids, horses and dogs.”
Tessier is friends with Tipton and Fuqua, they often let him crash on the couch or shower at their place. There’s a strong bond between the people that share the same hardships.
“We’re like a family out here, we look out for each other,” Smith said. “There’s good people out here. We just don’t have a house or a job.”
All events hosted by joint efforts of the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless and Waterfront Mission. For more information, visit ecoh.org or contact Janis Wilson at 341-1399.
Local Events Honoring National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week
11.11 Food Drive Kick-off and Veterans Day Celebrations
Drop off your donations of non-perishable food items at any local business that has collection boxes or at Manna Food Pantry, 116 East Gonzalez St. A full list of participating businesses is online at ecoh.org.
11.12 Candlelight Vigil for the Homeless of Santa Rosa County
Gather at the River Walk in downtown Milton at 6:30 p.m. to hear live music, enjoy light refreshments and stories of the homeless in the Santa Rosa County community. The annual event is dedicated to remembering those lost and honoring them with a moment of silence.
11.13 No Dinner and a Movie Night
It’s a day of fasting and awareness. At 6:30 p.m., meet at the new Waterfront Mission at 348 Herman St. to watch “My Own Four Walls,” a film about homeless children and meet the local “Faces of Homelessness” speakers. Fast for all or part of the day to experience what the homeless face on a daily basis. Bring a one-day supply of non-perishable foods as your admission to the movie.
11.14 Prayer Breakfast with Local Leaders
Executives from area businesses will be at Loaves & Fishes Soup Kitchen at 7 a.m. to serve the local homeless men and women and to pray for all those who are struggling with poverty, hunger and homelessness in the community.
11.15 Escambia County Candlelight Vigil
The vigil will be held at Waterfront Rescue Mission, 348 Herman St. to create awareness of local homeless and to honor the homeless who had died this past year. The vigil will include testimonies from homeless persons, music provided by Ladies of the Mission and light refreshments.
11.16 4th Annual Faces of Homelessness
Starting at 5 p.m. at Gallery Night, head to the Escambia County Tax Collector’s Office at 213 S. Palafox, to purchase original artwork by homeless artists. Live music and light refreshments will be provided.
11.17 Final Day for Food Drive
Take time to drop off donations of non-perishable food items at any local business that has collection boxes or at Manna Food Pantry, 116 East Gonzalez St. A full list of participating businesses is online at ecoh.org.
How You Can Help
There’s no better time to help than the Holidays.
American Red Cross Holiday Giving Guide- Shop for a good cause. Choose gifts to donate—from vaccinations to blankets to military comfort kits—in honor of friends and family. You will receive a free holiday greeting card to send announcing your gift. For more information, redcross.org.
Winter Warmth Drive- Donate blankets, gloves and stocking hats to go directly out to the homeless in our area. For more information, contact Cathy Harris at 324-1951 or visit streetsandlanesministry.com.
Be a Santa to a Senior- Get matched up with a senior at local Wal-Marts until December 18 and get a list of their desired Christmas presents. Buy the items and return them to the store with the ornament. There will be a community gift-wrap event December 19 at 10 a.m. at Home Instead Senior Care, 100 N. Spring St. Participating Wal-Mart locations are: 8970 Pensacola Blvd., 4965 Highway 90, Milton, 3767 Gulf Breeze Pkwy., 2650 Creighton Rd., and 2951 S Blue Angel Pkwy. For more information, visit beasantatoasenior.com or call 477-1947.
Fill a Christmas Stocking- Stuff a stocking or two for the homeless. Items such as gloves, scarves, toiletries, small radios, hard candy or hand warmers are needed all year long. Stockings need to be completed by December 4. For more information, contact Cathy Harris at 324-1951 or visit streetsandlanesministry.com.