The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Homelessness taxing efforts of providers

Volunteers serve homeless and low-income people at the Caring Kitchen in Delray Beach,

which CROS Ministries runs. The kitchen has about 150 volunteers.

Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Mary Hladky

    Twenty minutes before lunch was served, homeless men, women and a few children began lining up outside the Caring Kitchen in Delray Beach. A few chit-chatted and a man and woman with a disagreement shouted at each other, but most waited silently.
    Precisely at 11:30 a.m., the doors opened and the people filed in past a table with free toiletries.
    Franklin Nelson, an Army veteran who was volunteering at the hot meals program that day in February, exchanged pleasantries with each person and made sure the line moved smoothly.
    Other volunteers ladled pasta with meat sauce, salad and a piece of garlic toast into Styrofoam containers. After taking one, each person could then head to the dessert table, where more volunteers offered homemade cookies and chocolate cake.
    Some people sat to eat at tables squeezed into the small room. Others opted for solitude, and moved outside.
    Nelson said he has family members and veteran friends who are living on the streets. So when he happened on Caring Kitchen, he decided to volunteer.
     “I wanted to do something to help the community,” he said. “This was it.”
     Homelessness is a longstanding problem in Palm Beach County and across the country, and one that defies easy solutions.
     People can fall swiftly from a stable life because of lost jobs, overwhelming medical bills, mental illness or drug dependency. The proliferation of sober homes in the county,  notably in Delray Beach, adds another cause: People kicked out of the homes for violating rules can end up on the street.
     Palm Beach County’s Homeless Point-in-Time Count, released March 22, showed that 1,607 people were homeless countywide, an 11.5 percent increase from the last count in 2015.
     That total undoubtedly is too low, since many homeless don’t want to be counted for a host of reasons, including fear that they will be separated from their children or uncertainties about how their information will be used.
     But Wendy Tippett, the county’s director of human and veterans services, doesn’t believe the count, conducted over 24 hours in late January, actually reflects an increase. That’s because this year those collecting the data were allowed to count as homeless those who denied it, even though it was obvious they were living on the streets.
     Ten percent of those counted as homeless this year live in Delray Beach, 7.6 percent in Boynton Beach and 3.27 percent in Boca Raton.
     Even if the number of homeless people did not grow, the count showed troubling increases among two groups. Homeless people 18 to 24 jumped 73 percent, while homeless people 60 and older went up 33 percent.
     One reason for the youth jump, Tippett said, likely is that more people are willing to come out as gay, lesbian or transgender. When they tell their parents or caregivers, some are asked to leave their homes, she said.
     A problem facing older adults is that there are so few nursing homes or assisted living facilities that people living on Social Security or Social Security Disability can afford, she said. Once discharged from hospitals or other facilities, they end up homeless.
     But the count also pointed out successes. Chronic homelessness dropped by 49 percent and homeless veterans decreased by 62 percent because of a rapid re-housing financial assistance program and a housing voucher program provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those programs are potentially threatened by President Donald Trump’s plans to cut $6 billion in HUD funding.
     “I definitely think we are improving and the numbers reflect the ability of the very low income and disabled to secure safe, decent and affordable housing,” Tippett said.
     Yet the high cost of housing in Palm Beach County puts many people at risk of homelessness.
     The average monthly cost of a two-bedroom apartment is $1,500. To afford that, a family needs an income of $45,000 a year, Tippett said. Yet about 80 percent of county residents earn less than $35,000 a year, she said.
     Services are available, but they fall short of the need.
     The Senator Philip D. Lewis Center opened in 2012 in West Palm Beach as the county’s first homeless resource center. It provides 20 beds in a women’s dorm and 40 beds in a men’s dorm for temporary housing.
     To get services, homeless people are assessed at the center. Each gets a case manager who determines that person’s needs and which community service providers can meet those needs.  
     The Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County operates as an umbrella organization of those service providers, such as Gulfstream Goodwill Industries and Adopt-A-Family of the Palm Beaches.
     Tippett wants to open another resource center that will move the county toward the goal of having a total of four.
Despite these efforts, many homeless people struggle to get on firmer financial footing.
     That has created tension in cities, where residents complain about homeless people camped in parks or other public places and call on the police to do something about the situation.

Homeless people have rights
     A homeless man and city workers at Veterans Park in Delray Beach last month said police come to the park at various times and tell the homeless people who are sleeping there to move along.
     But police are in a tough spot.
     Delray Beach Police Lt. Russ Mager knows homeless people make many other people uncomfortable. But they, too, have rights, he said.
     If they are breaking the law, police can take action, he said. Their mere presence is another matter.
     “It is not a crime to be homeless,” Mager said.
     The Police Department is hiring a service population advocate to link those who need services to those who provide them, an initiative pressed by Chief Jeff Goldman.
     The new hire would work with people who are homeless, mentally ill or evicted from sober homes.
     To do more to address homelessness, the City Commission created the Delray Beach Homeless Initiative in August. Its members have 18 months to develop recommendations.
     But they are looking at ways to take action before that. One of the first steps was to increase the number of volunteers helping the county complete the homeless count in the city, out of concern they were undercounted in the past, said Ezra Krieg, who co-chairs the initiative with Delray Beach Police Sgt. Darrell Hunter.
     Another idea was hatched when the city learned public schools within its boundaries have 192 homeless students in kindergarten through grade 12.
     “That was a call to action,” said Janet Meeks, deputy director of public affairs.
     The students get free meals at school. To help them on weekends, the homeless initiative is raising funds — with a goal of $60,000 — from local businesses and service and religious organizations that would go to the school district to pack meals in backpacks for the students on Fridays, Krieg said.
     Another priority is to find a new and larger location for Caring Kitchen, whose presence at 196 NW Eighth Ave. does not please neighborhood residents.
     “This is an essential community program,” Krieg said. “We need to find a place.”
     The city now recognizes that it can’t expect the county, service organizations and volunteers to resolve homeless issues on their own, said Krieg, director of housing initiatives at Gulfstream Goodwill and the former director of the Lewis Center.
     “The county is doing its part,” he said. “Unless the city also steps up, we won’t be able to address this issue in Delray Beach.”

Nonprofits loom large
     Even though the county has set up infrastructure to help homeless people, much of the actual work falls to volunteers and nonprofits.
     The Caring Kitchen, operated by CROS Ministries, has about 150 volunteers. With a staff of just three people, “We need all of the volunteers to provide all the services we provide,” said assistant program director Shona Castillo.
     That includes serving about 60 breakfasts and 160 lunches each weekday, and dinners four days a week.
     Other services include helping homeless people get IDs, which are frequently lost or stolen, and apply for food stamps and Medicaid. If someone has a friend or relative in another city who can help, Caring Kitchen staff confirms that and then pays for a bus ticket.
     Its small building is a hive of activity in the mornings. Cars and trucks pull up frequently to drop off food donations. A table behind the dining area is stacked with bread donations. Boxes of canned goods line one wall.
     The volunteers said they are enriched by their efforts. “I enjoy what I do — helping people,” said Nelson, who recently had to stop his daily trips to the center to undergo medical treatment.
     Sadakatzahra Glemeau, who was serving iced tea at lunch in February, described the Caring Kitchen as a “warm environment.”
“It doesn’t make you feel like an outcast,” she said.
     CROS Ministries also operates food pantries in Delray Beach and six other cities in the county as well as in Martin County that provided food to nearly 50,000 people over nine months last year.
     Clients include seniors, the working poor, unemployed and homeless. “They are trying to make ends meet. They need us,” said Melanie Winter, the Delray Beach food pantry coordinator.  
     When Caring Kitchen is closed, Cason United Methodist Church picks up the slack.
     Every Saturday at 9 a.m., volunteers distribute brown bag lunches prepared by volunteers at St. Edward Roman Catholic Church in West Palm Beach and nonperishable lunches that Cason volunteers assemble with the help of Publix, which provides breads and desserts, said bag lunch coordinator Sara Knight.
     The church, at 342 N. Swinton Ave., also has held memorial services when a homeless person dies. The sister of a man who died “said it really helped her to know he had friends and people who cared for him,” Knight said.
     Cason is among 19 interfaith congregations in Delray Beach that work with Family Promise of South Palm Beach County, on the campus of St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church.
     Each congregation has agreed to provide shelter at night for homeless families for one week each quarter. They are housed in rooms in the church, are provided meals and have access to showers and computers.
     During the day, when their children are in school, the parents go to Family Promise, where they receive a mental health assessment, and referral to mental health treatment, if needed.
     Family Promise provides resources to help unemployed parents find a job and instructs them on financial management. Case managers work to keep the parents moving toward self-sufficiency, including saving enough money to rent an apartment. Families are in the program 30 to 90 days.
     Seventy-five percent of the 16 families helped last year “graduated” and almost all remained employed and housed for the 12 months they are tracked.
     Although not designed specifically for homeless people, CityHouse in Delray Beach helps single mothers and their children, who can stay in the program for up to two years.
     CityHouse places the moms and kids in five units of a seven-unit apartment building, whose location is not disclosed. One unit serves as a family room for classes, meals and celebrations. An in-house manager supports and encourages them.
     The concept of the program, which is supported by private donations, is that the lives of kids won’t improve unless the mother is stable and able to care for them.
     “Our goal is to help the women become financially independent and develop a healthy support network,” said executive director Lisa Wanamaker.
     “On average, I get a phone call or email three times a week from a mom who is sleeping in her car with her children, or just had a baby and nowhere to go. The need is enormous.”

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