There are roughly 1,500 homeless people in Alachua County.
Over a quarter of those people are children.
While the number of Alachua County residents who identify as homeless – 1,477 as of a January census – is steadily decreasing, county officials are focusing on helping the 525 homeless students and children.
The concern for the students is emphasized because children and teenagers often go unnoticed, blending into the University of Florida community, said Theresa Lowe, the executive director of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry.
“If you see a young adult walking around with a backpack, you probably wouldn’t know if they’re a student or homeless,” said Lowe said. “We aren’t thinking to approach them and a lot of the youth who are homeless are couch surfing.”
But, she said, multiple programs are available to help students not only find a safe haven, but succeed in school.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act specifically addresses the problems homeless students face with enrolling and succeeding in schools. McKinney-Vento liaisons are present at every school in the county to address students’ needs on an individual basis.
“If they show up at one of our schools, they’re supposed to be able to enroll immediately whether they have the documentation that’s required to enroll or not,” said Nadia Shields, the homeless education coordinator for Alachua County Public Schools. “It’s to remove barriers to immediate education.”
Shields works with her staff members to split up duties between homeless elementary, middle and high schoolers.
“For our high schoolers, we try to make sure that they are college bound or at least eligible for graduation,” she said. “We help them with the FAFSA and provide them with the documentation that they provide to financial aid so that we can help them get noted as independent or otherwise manage whatever aid they might get.”
Because homeless youth are often struggling with family issues, Shields said, she tries to offer assistance in order to make their lives as normal as possible. This includes applying for food stamps or other benefits in order to provide a source of income.
“A lot of our kids have part-time jobs and I just try to figure out how to help them manage what they have so that they can survive day-to-day,” Shields said. “Sometimes, it’s the difference between them getting a meal in a day or access to transportation to school, which may be the only stable outlet in their life.”
Other programs are working to establish a home for the youth.
At Interface Youth Shelter Central, a branch of Corner Drug Store Family and Behavioral Health Services in Gainesville, children and teenagers between the ages of 10-17 find a safe haven whether they are runaways, truant or simply need assistance.
“We’re trying to get involved with young people before they become delinquent,” said Jim Pearce, CEO of Corner Drug Store. “If we can work with these children at a younger age and find out what the issues are, hopefully they will not end up in the juvenile justice system when they become older.”
An average length of stay at Interface Youth Shelter Central is 35 days, which is enough time to try to focus on what the main issues of each individual are and giving them a sense of stability, Pearce said.
“Most of the young people at the shelter are local kids from this area,” he said. “We’ll take them to their home school during the day and pick them up in the afternoon.”
For youth who, for different reasons, are not involved in school, Interface Youth Shelter Central provides educational services at the shelter.
And while school is often the only stable aspect of students’ lives, Jayne Moraski, the executive director of Family Promise of Gainesville, said she works to make their home lives as comfortable as possible, too.
“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Many hands make light work?’,” Moraski asked. “That’s how this organization was founded.”
As an affiliate chapter of the national organization, the Gainesville chapter of Family Promise, formerly known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, was founded in 1996. Since then, it has helped over 1,000 people out of homelessness.
Every day, congregations of various denominations house families in Sunday school rooms or empty rooms inside their buildings. Families stay at each local faith congregation for one week from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., and reside at the Family Promise center during the day. At the end of the week, they move on to another congregation.
“The easiest way for me to think of it is that it is a mobile shelter,” Moraski said. “Even though they’re always moving, it’s a much more stable environment than some of their other situations. They aren’t split up like they would be in a lot of shelters.”
The organization works with four families at a time for up to 90 days, and then provides six months of aftercare where families are encouraged to be self-sufficient.
“The focus is on breaking the cycle of poverty so that these kids get some stability in their lives,” Moraski said. “Our goal is for them to succeed.”