tampabay.com

Group turns its focus on census of homeless

A City Council member asks an African-American group to help improve the county's annual census of homeless people.

By JON WILSON
Published March 19, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - The homeless issue touches Midtown as well as downtown, and a political action group will take a close look at it, one of the group's leaders said Wednesday.

"We have homeless here in Midtown and throughout St. Petersburg. It's all our problem," said Abdul Karim Ali, vice chair of the African-American Voters Research and Education Committee.

Speaking at an AAVREC meeting, City Council member Jamie Bennett asked the group to get involved in improving the county's annual census of homeless people and in lobbying officials to fund programs.

This year's count found 4,697 homeless people countywide. Because the survey was taken on a rainy, cool day, Bennett said he believes the real figure is probably more than 5,000.

Of those, about 1 in 4 is African-American, said Beth Eschenfelder, the city's social services manager.

But more accurate data is needed to figure out why they are homeless and to help attack the causes, officials say.

"We really don't have a pulse of what is going on in the African-American community" in regard to homelessness, Bennett said.

Bennett's presentation sparked a lively conversation among AAVREC members in the audience.

Willie Foster suggested that city and county officials be lobbied to require developers to pay a fee that could be used to help finance a shelter.

Bennett said that such an option is being discussed. He also cited a 500-bed shelter in Miami, which he said was built after the Dade County metro government decided large-scale "tent cities" underneath overpasses required action.

Foster and Winnie Foster (no relation) also suggested a requirement that people who are evicted for nonpayment of rent get counseling or be referred to a social service agency for help in finding new housing.

"People get evicted, they know they don't have any place to go, they panic," Willie Foster said.

Bennett said the perception many people have of the homeless population often is skewed.

During this year's census, just 2.1 percent of the people surveyed listed "choose not to work" as a reason for being homeless.

Alcohol and drug problems were cited as a major cause, but the reason most frequently cited was simply not having enough income.

The census figures show 18 percent are children, and 21 percent are women, a segment of the population that isn't always visible to the public.

"Really, what they are is our neighbors," Bennett said.