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Female homeless population escalating rapidly

Many are young, some arepregnant and shelters lack beds. Officials are alarmed.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007


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Cynthia Moreno wears rhinestone-crusted barrettes and sparkly aquamarine eyeshadow.

She likes to go to the beach and shop for pretty clothes. With more than 200 MySpace friends, at first glance she seems no different from most teenage girls except Moreno, 18, is homeless.

She spends most of her days sitting on a dusty curb under a highway overpass.

"I try to have fun when I can. I live each day in the moment," she said while sitting outside a St. Vincent de Paul food bank on a recent afternoon, waiting for the shelter to open so she could enjoy a hot meal and a shower. "I have a lot of friends on the street."

Young women like Moreno, who are homeless because of bad decisions and unreliable family members or friends, are becoming more common, say city officials and homeless advocates.

In recent months, the population of women living on the streets in St. Petersburg has spiked, and county officials say they expect the trend to spread throughout Pinellas.

"It's very concerning," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

"We are dealing with women who have become homeless because of lost jobs or medical problems. We have some that have substance abuse problems. These are people who cannot find affordable housing."

While homeless advocates say it is not likely that homeless women will outnumber homeless men anytime soon, the rise in the female population has social services agencies scrambling to add extra beds in women-only shelters and provide other services specific to women at a time when funding for nonprofits has been slashed nationwide.

"It just shows us you can't make broad assumptions about this population," said council member Jamie Bennett, who heads the countywide Homeless Leadership Network. "Now we have young teenagers and some of them that are even pregnant, who are homeless. It makes you wonder what is going on."

Of 2,219 homeless people in Pinellas who were surveyed in January, nearly 30 percent, or 625 respondents, were women. In 2006, of 1,481 homeless people surveyed, 416, again nearly 30 percent, were female.

In a recent homeless head count in St. Petersburg, 38 of the 150 homeless people surveyed in July were women, or about 25 percent. St. Petersburg officials do not have similar numbers for July 2006, but of the 368 people surveyed in that year, 78 were women, or more than 21 percent.

Advocates say they are also seeing more young pregnant women out on the streets but are unable to provide statistics on that population because pregnancy is not a factor recorded in the homeless census.

The rise in the female homeless population is attributed to a myriad of factors.

Some young homeless women are former foster children who made the transition out of government care with no place to go or any idea on how to be an independent adult.

Others are women who are no longer eligible for federal aid such as food stamps based on the 1996 welfare reform, which set time limit requirements.

Finding shelter for these women, especially those with children, can be more difficult than finding a place for men to sleep because safety is generally a greater concern, advocates said.

"A lot of these women have been victims to some kind of domestic violence and then they end up on the street, where they are very vulnerable," said Bruce Wright, founder of the Refuge, a homeless outreach center that focuses on displaced youths.

"No matter how you slice it, eventually some guy is going to try to sleep with them or do something to them."

Wright said he often has to choose between placing women in quality motels for a short period of time or bringing them to more affordable motels, which might be less safe, where they can afford to stay for a greater number of nights.

Some homeless mothers may also be afraid to seek out help because they worry their children will be taken away from them by the state, said Linda A. Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse, a domestic violence shelter for women.

"Once you have a baby, you're done," she said. "It takes more resources for us to be able to help them. It's hard for them to get jobs. A lot of them don't even have high school diplomas and men are more likely to get hired to do manual labor."

Moreno, a former foster child, became homeless two months ago when she moved to St. Petersburg from Knoxville, Tenn., with her best girl friend. The two moved into an apartment together, but when her pal met a new guy, Moreno was told to move out, she said.

Moreno soon met her own new beau outside of a Salvation Army shelter and decided to stay living on the streets with him, a man she said is nearly 50 years old and a former convict, instead of moving back in with her mother in Knoxville.

She is optimistic they will soon save up some money to return to her hometown. They have already started talking about having kids one day.

"Living on the streets is what you make of it," she said. "I would be bored if I was by myself."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 1, 2007, 23:51:39]


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