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The changing face of homelessness in Indian River County
Number who have lost jobs up sharply

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL, (Week of June 21, 2012)

Homelessness in Indian River County is increasing sharply among families that were once members of the working class. It’s an unpleasant subject, but there truly is trouble in paradise.

“I think that the public doesn’t like to think about it; they don’t want to see it. It makes them uncomfortable,” said John’s Island philanthropist Richard Stark, founder and chairman of the Treasure Coast Homeless Services Council. 

This year’s point-in-time survey analysis, conducted annually by the Treasure Coast Homeless Services County for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, saw an increase of 168 homeless individuals to 774 in Indian River County; with children accounting for approximately 40 percent of the homeless. By comparison, St. Lucie County homelessness dropped by 135 people to 636 and Martin County increased by only 8 to 314.  

Although conducted over a 10-day period, the report counts only those who are homeless on a given night – in this case Jan. 27, 2012.  That one-day count did not include another 109 Indian River County residents who anticipated imminent eviction within two weeks of the survey.

“Employment is the main issue for homelessness in this community,” said Louise Hubbard, executive director of TCHSC, which also serves St. Lucie and Martin County.  “The unemployment rate is still three points higher than national average even though it’s gone down slightly.” 

Reports indicate lack of a job was the primary reason for homelessness given by 49 percent this year, up from 34 percent in 2011.

“In the past, if you were about to be homeless or were homeless it was because you were broken in some way and needed all this intervention to be fixed,” Hubbard said.  “However, literally 50 percent of the people who are homeless this year are homeless due to unemployment and no other reason.

“The whole mindset of the community has always been that if you’re homeless there’s something wrong with you.  But the biggest problem is that they don’t make enough money to save themselves from homelessness.  They’re not a unique population anymore.  They’re not lazy or undereducated.  Some have had full-time jobs for 30 years.” 

The Homeless Services Council dedicates the majority of its time to homelessness prevention.  The screening process is extensive and meticulous, Hubbard says, because the agency is accountable for that money. It coordinates with other agencies to help individuals apply for whatever benefits they may be entitled to but also to insure no benefits are duplicated.

“This operation is staff intensive and it is technologically intensive, tracking information in three counties. Every person’s name, where they’ve been what they’ve done, what they’ve been to.”

Landlords willing to rent to the homeless often provide substandard housing, but it is frequently the only option. 

“We spend more $600,000 in Indian River County providing rental dollars to landlords,” says Hubbard, noting that the provision of supportive housing from HUD is limited to disabled single individuals and homeless families, and is paid directly to landlords. 

“The biggest money we expended was utility costs. In particular people whose utilities are City of Vero Beach  ...  We keep the utility companies alive; it’s incredible.  Utilities outstrip everything.  Even water costs a lot.” 

Currently only two transitional housing shelters are in Indian River County and both require a family configuration.  Neither accepts single, unaccompanied adults and small number they can house barely scratches the surface. 

The maximum capacity at the Samaritan Center for Homeless Families is 26 residents in nine bedrooms.  The Homeless Family Center can accommodate seven families in the emergency shelter and 12 families in the transitional shelter for a total of 72 people. 

Both work to get people back into society through education, training and help with job placement and housing but there is always a wait-list.  

The only other shelter is SafeSpace, the lone domestic violence shelter here, which has six units for with women and children in imminent danger. “That’s the entire gamut of housing opportunities that exist here,” says Hubbard. 

“It’s an intractable problem. It’s growing fast and the funds are shrinking.  It does raise a question about priorities,” says Stark. “The number of homeless in our county is distressing.”   

“What people should know is that by limiting opportunities for viable work, they are contributing to the economic problems in this community,” stresses Hubbard. “It’s not going to change as long as people with money, who can influence elections, have a desire to keep the community the way it is.  Realistically this is an economic issue at this point.

“There are those who have made significant amounts to be able to take care of future generations, and there are those who are very poor.  The in-between population has lower and lower opportunities to live and work in Indian River County.”  

Hubbard and Stark both cite the not-in-my-back-yard attitude as the primary obstacle The Source faces in its attempt to establish Camp Haven.  The Source, in cooperation with the Sheriff’s Office, is seeking a secure site to build a safe, legal campground with raised tents, showers and sanitary facilities for homeless men, women and childless couples. Despite assurances people will each be thoroughly screened, it is a hard sell. 

“These people who work with the homeless are saints. They get very little thanks,” Stark says, giving particular praise to Hubbard.  “I love the lady.  She works so hard and is so accomplished and passionate about the cause.  The plight of the homeless needs to be brought to the surface a little more frequently.”  

With few major employers in the county, and the majority of retail and hospitality wages low, homelessness can be just a paycheck away.  Hubbard says the view that people can just work harder or get another job is wrong.  

She gave as an example a family of four with both parents employed – one at a grocery store and one at a drug store. With low-wage jobs, a cut in hours impacted their ability to pay bills. 

“If they have some savings it will carry them for a while, but on those two kinds of salaries, with the increased cost of living – especially utilities and gas – those two salaries don’t leave much room for savings,” says Hubbard.  

“Unless they can find another job, they’re facing eviction. There is a whole group of people who can’t meet the cost of living. What happens is they get by, but if somebody loses a job or gets sick they’re in trouble quick.”  

Construction jobs are slowly beginning to come back, but Hubbard said many small contractors who owned their own business “lost their shirts.” 

“They did well during the boom, but had to use that money when there was literally a work desert. The loss of hours has happened significantly in the last couple of years.  Therefore, families who were getting by are now finding themselves unable to get by.”

Skyrocketing healthcare costs are another problem.  An increasing number of employers cut or dropped medical benefits, or hire workers at fewer hours to avoid benefits. 

“The cost of even routine service keeps people from being able to access care,” says Hubbard. “People ignore their health when they’re homeless or struggling.  With most of the things that need attention, it takes three weeks to get an appointment.  By that time, it’s gone away on its own or you die from it.”

Those that do meet Medicaid qualifications must overcome another hurdle.  A website purportedly lists all the certified Medicaid providers in Indian River County, but Hubbard says, “We called all of them. They all said no.  One said yes, but their palette was full.”

Unlike Medicare, which many physicians accept, a so-called Medicaid palette is generally full at five patients.

“Medicaid is complex in Florida,” she said.  “Medicaid doesn’t do anything for you except to lower your prescription costs slightly.”