By Tom Hinkebein
Remember sleeping under the stars in the humid night air? It was fun and exciting to go on a camping excursion for a week or even just a weekend. Snuggling in your sleeping bag. Sleeping in a tent. Cooking over a campfire. Swimming and even bathing in the river or a stream. Well, now imagine living in the great outdoors year round, not by choice, but by need due to misfortune or circumstances.
That is the plight of the large homeless population of Southern Hillsborough County. Despite the Point in Time homeless count, conducted by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, which states that the county homeless population has declined over the last 12 months, we still have a large number of homeless persons in our area. Many are homeless due to loss of job, poor life choices, or unforeseen circumstances. Struggling to stay warm during the colder months, trying to keep cool when the temperature rises, keeping dry during thunderstorms or seasonal rains, or weathering hurricane-like winds is an everyday challenge.
Some are lucky enough to have a tent, although it may leak, to provide minimal shelter to protect themselves from the elements. Others seek shelter under a bridge, a tree or bush, cardboard or anything available. Many of the homeless take refuge in local wooded areas; however, they are being moved out of these areas due to the rapid growth of new residential developments in this part of the county.
The homeless are forced to keep moving as they are reported by local residents and businesses and then informed by local law enforcement that they may not camp or congregate in certain areas. They are not allowed to linger in any one area, day or night, within a community or they may face a citation for loitering. But with no local shelters, where are they to go?
With two local food pantries in Ruskin and three food pantries in the Wimauma area, the homeless are able to obtain food on certain days throughout the week. Hot meals are also available on Monday evenings in Commongood Park in Ruskin and lunch on Wednesdays at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Sun City Center. At least one or two of the food pantries offer personal care items, such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste, as well as other necessities, including insect repellent. From time to time a few clothing items and shoes are available to those in dire need. This is accessible provided the homeless are able to get to one of these facilities.
But what about other important needs…shelters, transportation, medical, dental, barber services? What about hot showers? One of the most asked questions from the homeless is “Where can I get a shower?” Most of us take that privilege for granted, but being clean gives a person a sense of dignity, something the homeless long for as well. Lack of bathing sets the homeless apart and keeps them apart from the rest of society, as well as from finding employment. Currently, the only local shower facility is at E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin at a cost of $2 per person to enter the park. Since it is located more than 3 miles from U.S. 41, walking or riding a bike back from the park in the Florida heat defeats the purpose of the shower. The only other options are bathing in a river or the bay, or sneaking a “shower” from someone’s garden hose.
In addition to the aforementioned desire, the thing the homeless need most is a way or means out of their situation. This can be accomplished through educational services…assistance in getting a GED, job training, resume assistance and technical help. Social Service assistance in acquiring an I.D. or driver’s license, a social security card, or SSI and Social Security benefits is also many times a struggle.
Another big need is pro-bono legal services to assist in outstanding warrants against a person or to assist in possibly getting a past felony expunged from the person’s record in order to find employment. Most businesses will not hire someone with a past felony on their record, even if it is 10 to 20 years in the past. In addition, there is a need for services to assist homeless veterans. These men and women bravely served our country and now are in need of our support. However, no programs as these exist in Southern Hillsborough County.
As far as shelters go, the closest one to this area is in Tampa. The downside is, even if our area homeless are able to find a way to Tampa, the beds are limited and are on a first-come basis. If a person is fortunate to get a bed, it may only be short term and they are then back on the street. Most of the homeless prefer to not leave this area. This is familiar ground — their “home,” and they feel “safe” in this area.
One shelter in Pinellas County called Pinellas Hope is a temporary shelter designed to get the homeless off the streets. The residents are assisted with educational services to train a person in job skills, personal finance, independent living training, along with many other services to help prevent a person from returning to the streets. This is the type of shelter and assistance programs needed in Southern Hillsborough County. Currently, none of the homeless services for Hillsborough County extend south of the Alafia River.
We in Hillsborough County are very fortunate, however, as we have a very sincere and trustworthy advocate assigned to work with the homeless. This is HCSO Community Resource Deputy Luke Hussey. Hussey works to curtail any illegal activities, but also assists in seeking services for homeless persons. He has literally gone into the woods to talk with homeless individuals, taken them food and clothing, and has attempted to find them employment. He is first and foremost an officer of the law, but he is indeed a friend to the homeless and advocate for their needs.
As with anything, you will find a certain percentage of the homeless population who do not want to be helped, prefer to remain off the grid and just want to be left alone. This is particularly true for some of the homeless veterans. Their military training taught them to be tough and self-reliant. This pride prevents them from admitting they need help or from accepting assistance.
Communities in South Hillsborough County need to come together and pull resources to get shelter and much needed services for our homeless neighbors. As the expression says, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
Sandra Murman, county commissioner, District 1 had this to say in regards of working to meet the needs of the homeless:
“Since 2011, I have either initiated, led, or participated in numerous projects, public, private or both, to address chronic homelessness in Hillsborough County, and I remain committed to this cause. We have identified an area of great need in South County of which we must now turn our focus.
“It is up to the entire community in South County to work together to end homelessness. The county knows where homeless camps are and areas where homeless regularly stop. The challenges we face are that we are still coming out of one of the worst economic downturns which impacted South County more than any other area of Hillsborough County, and with more residents at risk of homelessness because of low income and underemployment, it is a pressing community need that requires our urgent attention to provide food and shelter. Our county team will be putting together an action plan that we will bring back to the community for further discussion. For the first time in decades, our city, our county, the private sector, and stakeholders are tearing down walls and working together to solve homelessness — and to do it right, we need to take it one homeless person and one housing unit at a time.”
For more information on assisting the homeless or supporting shelter and needed programs in this area, you can contact any of the local food pantries, Sandra Murman, county commissioner, District 1, (813-272-5470); Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (813-274-6998); or the Department of Homeless Services (813-272-1184).
A famous quote attributed to John Bradford (circa 1510-1555) renders so very true in the case of homelessness: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Tom Hinkebein, a resident of Sun City Center, is the president of the Sun City Center Men’s Chorus, a volunteer with the Rotary Club of Sun City Center on the annual Meals of Hope Project and a volunteer at the St. Anne Food Pantry in Ruskin.