Frequently Asked Questions
Here’s a list of the top 25 most frequently asked questions about homelessness. Many of these questions were submitted by a St. Petersburg-area fifth grade student. Although the answers provided are concise and targeted toward elementary school students, the information is periodically updated and useful for researchers of all ages and backgrounds. Please refer to our ‘Resources’ page for more comprehensive data and study reports.
1. What is homelessness?
You are experiencing homelessness if you do not have an adequate, safe, fixed, permanent nighttime residence. This includes sleeping in shelters, transitional housing, parks, encampments, on sidewalks, at bus stops, doubled-up or “couch surfing” in apartments or trailers with relatives or friends, in abandoned buildings, on rooftops, in your vehicle, or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation not suitable for human habitation.
2. What are the major causes of homeless?
The causes of homelessness are many, varied and complex. However, the major causes of homelessness include: lack of affordable housing, loss of employment or inadequate wages from employment, evictions, family disintegration, drug and/or alcohol abuse, mental health problems, and medical issues. Families with children are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population.
3. What causes a child or youth to experience homelessness?
Children most often experience homelessness when their parents or guardians lose their permanent housing. Youth often experience homelessness after “aging out” of foster care or running away from home. These youth often have nowhere to go and have little education and life skills. They are highly vulnerable to hunger, violence, sexual assault, drug abuse, and forced prostitution. An increasing number of children and youth become homeless after being abducted from their homes by corrupt adults participating in human trafficking and using children for various illegal practices such as prostitution and commercial sex trade.
4. Who is a “chronically” homeless person?
A person is considered "chronically homeless" if he or she is an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition, sleeping in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation, who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four separate, distinct, and sustained episodes of homelessness on the streets or in emergency shelters in the past three years.
5. How many people are experiencing homelessness in Pinellas County?
Getting an accurate count of people experiencing homelessness is difficult. While single homeless adults are more likely to participate in the annual homeless count and survey, homeless families stay out of sight for fear their children will be taken away, and homeless unaccompanied youth shy away for fear of being returned home. Some advocates estimate there are actually over 23,000 people experiencing homelessness countywide. In 2013, Pinellas County’s Point in Time Count revealed that Pinellas County now has the highest rate of homelessness in the State. On one night in January 2013, there were 3,913 homeless people counted in Pinellas County (using the more restrictive HUD definition of homelessness) -- a rate 4.75 times higher than the state average. Using the more expansive definition of homelessness, Pinellas County counted 6,953 in January 2013. During the 2014 Point in Time count, 5,887 homeless people were counted on January 22nd. Here are some of the statistics from that count:
6. Are all of the homeless in Pinellas County from Pinellas County?
Most of the people experiencing homelessness in Pinellas County were residents (renters or home owners) here before being displaced. Statistics show that 75% of those without permanent housing lived in Pinellas County for one year or more prior to losing their housing; 50% lived here five years or more. These facts indicate that these homeless individuals are in fact our neighbors.
7. How many emergency shelter beds are available in Pinellas County?
In Pinellas County, there are 2,868 shelter beds for individuals and families. These beds include emergency shelter, safe havens, transitional housing, and permanent supported housing. Even with the addition of Pinellas Hope and Pinellas Safe Harbor, with their combined total of almost 1,000 beds, this number is far short of the estimated number of beds needed to shelter all of the chronically homeless persons living on the streets without shelter and the increasing number of families with children that need shelter. (Interestingly enough, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office reports that their jail has 4,389 beds.) Click here for real-time shelter bed availability.
8. Where do people who are unsheltered sleep at night?
People who have been displaced from their homes who are not sleeping in shelters, transitional housing, or doubled-up with friends and family are considered unsheltered, and you will find them sleeping in a variety of unsuitable locations such as: sidewalks, bus stops, doorways, roof tops, tents, under bridges, along railroad tracks and the Pinellas Trail, in motor vehicles, and in abandoned buildings and trailers.
9. How do unsheltered people heat (cook) their food?
Unsheltered people living in encampments (makeshift camps set up in wooded areas) often make campfires to cook their food, but it is a dangerous, unhealthy practice because there are inadequate provisions for fire safety, sanitation, trash removal or food storage.
10. Where can people experiencing homelessness get prepared meals?
In most instances, homeless people eat food prepared at meal service sites like churches and social service agencies. For instance, in St. Petersburg, meals are offered by agencies such as Beacon House, St. Vincent de Paul Center and The Salvation Army One Stop Center. Celebrate Outreach sponsors and coordinates weekend meal service at Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg on Friday evenings and Trinity Lutheran Church on Saturday mornings. Click here to get view information about nutrition resources throughout Pinellas County.
11. Where do children experiencing homelessness go to school?
They may attend the same schools they were attending before experiencing homelessness. Pinellas County Schools’ Homeless Education Assistance Team (HEAT) provides educational and social work services to assist homeless children and their families. For the 2011-2012 school year — the most recent data available — Pinellas County had 3,085 homeless students. Pinellas County has seen a 221% increase of homelessness among families with children since the 2007-2008 school year. You may have a homeless classmate and not know it. However, many homeless children miss school or perform at a decreased level because of their circumstances. Children in temporary accommodations miss out on a quarter of their schooling.
12. What is the educational level of those who are experiencing homelessness?
A recent survey indicated that 64% of respondents had no higher than a high school diploma or GED. While there is not a direct causal link between level of education and probability of homelessness, it is true the more education or skill training a person has, the greater possibility of earning a substantial enough wage or salary to cover housing and other costs of living. However, as the statistics suggest, there are people with college degrees and vocational training who are homeless, thus indicating other causes for homelessness such as drug or alcohol addiction, lack of a support system (family, friends, etc.), temporary loss of employment, foreclosure, inappropriate response to grief or other traumatic life change, catastrophe (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.), and health issues.
13. Why do so many people who are experiencing homelessness engage in panhandling?
While the vast majority of panhandlers are homeless, not all panhandlers are homeless. Most are middle-aged ethnic minorities who have a disability. They often raise just $25 per day, and use it primarily for food and housing, contrary to the common belief that they spend the donated money on alcohol and drugs. Female panhandlers are often trying to raise money for necessities that government programs like WIC and TANF don’t cover (e.g., personal hygiene items, laundry supplies, etc.). However, panhandlers often provide an unwelcome reminder of poverty. So, it's no surprise that many cities go out of their way to discourage panhandling and ban it altogether. Many private and government agencies are encouraging people not to support panhandlers, but rather give their donations to a homeless service provider. Nevertheless, panhandling is a protected form of free speech, thus moving some progressive cities to require panhandlers to wear neon-colored reflective vests and observe other safety regulations.
14. Why is street homelessness particularly dangerous for women?
Women experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of interpersonal victimization, including sexual and physical assault at the hands of strangers, acquaintances, pimps, sex traffickers, and intimate partners on the street, in shelters, or in precarious housing situations.
15. Why are there so many veterans on the streets?
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states that the nation’s 57,849 homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly 8% being female. Most are single, live in urban areas, and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. Veterans comprise about 12% of the adult homeless population, and forty percent of homeless veterans were in unsheltered locations. Roughly 40% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone. Homelessness among veterans has declined each year since 2010. Between 2012 and 2013, veteran homelessness declined by 8%. Florida has the second highest number of veterans (5,505), and the largest increase in homeless veterans between 2012 and 2013. In addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness – extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
16. What is meant by the phrase “criminalization of homelessness”?
The criminalization of homelessness refers to measures which prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces. These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations of these acts. Many criminalization measures violate the human and constitutional rights of persons experiencing homelessness. Criminalization measures which punish homelessness and activities necessary to survive on the street are counterproductive to ending homelessness. Associated fines and criminal records create greater barriers for many to becoming employed and re-housed.
17. How do people experiencing homelessness get medical care?
Medical care is available through County health centers and the Mobile Medical Unit. Agencies such as St. Petersburg Free Clinic offer limited medical services specifically for those experiencing homelessness. However, the vast majority of homeless adults are uninsured, and they often use hospital emergency rooms as their primary source of medical care, which costs taxpayers lots of money each year. Some organizations have worked together to conduct one-day medical camps called Project Homeless Connect, in which doctors and nurses, along with social service agency representatives, volunteer their time to bring medical and other services to people experiencing homelessness without charge.
18. What are some common health problems related to homelessness?
Poor health is both a cause and a result of homelessness. Homeless people suffer from high rates of mental and physical health problems exacerbated by living on the streets and in shelters. Half of people experiencing homelessness suffer from mental health issues. Substance use is also prevalent among homeless populations. Diseases that are common among the homeless population include heart disease, cancer, liver disease, kidney disease, skin infections, HIV/AIDS, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. These health conditions often require long-term, consistent care. Homelessness inhibits this care, as housing instability often detracts from regular medical attention, access to treatment, and recuperation. This inability to treat medical problems often aggravates them, making them both more dangerous and more costly. Barriers to health care include the cost, lack of knowledge about where to get treated, lack of access to transportation, and lack of identification. As a result of these factors, homeless people are three to four times more likely to die than the general population. People experiencing homelessness have much higher mortality (death rates) and shorter life expectancy. The average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated between 42 and 52 years, compared to 78 years in the general population.
19. What happens to people who died while experiencing homelessness in Pinellas County?
The County’s Medical Examiner takes charge of the deceased’s remains to determine the cause of death and to notify the next of kin. Sometimes, decedents remain unidentified or unclaimed. Celebrate Outreach coordinates and conducts Homeless Persons’ Memorial Services each year on the Sunday closest to December 21st to bring dignity to the lives of those who died while experiencing homelessness in Pinellas County, and to remind all of us of the urgent need to end homelessness and the violence perpetrated against the “street homeless.” Approximately fifty persons have been memorialized in each of the seven years these services have been conducted in Pinellas County. There have been exploratory discussions in the recent past among area churches to develop an area for burial plots for those unidentified or unclaimed homeless decedents.
20. Which state has the highest amount of people experiencing homelessness?
Every state in the Union, along with many countries around the world, has a homelessness problem. Florida, now the third most populous state in the Union, has the third highest homeless population in the nation, accounting for 8.7% (47,862 people) of the nation’s homeless population, according to “The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress” prepared by The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While the largest decreases in homelessness nationwide since 2012 were seen in Florida (-7,308) and Colorado (-7,014), Florida has the highest rate of unsheltered people in families (55.5%). Since 2007, Florida has been among the states with the largest increases in the number of chronically homeless individuals.
21. How can I get help if I am experiencing or about to experience homelessness?
There are many places that may be helpful. Immediate sources of aid in Pinellas County. Good places to start include the County’s Department of Human Services and 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares. An organization called Neighborworks also has a hotline, 888-995-HOPE, and a website to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. For assistance specifically with default/foreclosure or rental needs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has provided a list of approved housing counseling agencies. A listing of available agencies and services can be found on the ‘Resources’ page of this website.
22. What can people do to help those who are experiencing homelessness?
Give donations to and volunteer your time with organizations that provide shelter and other services for people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, more people are needed to advocate for affordable housing, living wages, low-cost child care, increased mental health services, and the decriminalization of homelessness. To explore other ways in which you may get involved, please click here.
23. How does homelessness negatively impact the community?
Cuts in federal assistance for housing, nutrition, and social services, combined with lack of affordable housing, low incomes, and lack of affordable health care, have resulted in dramatic increases in homelessness nationwide. Homelessness affects the entire community. There are increased economic costs for sheltering, law enforcement, and medical services. The overall quality of life is reduced by vagrancy, blight and adversarial relationships between the have's and have-not's. The moral fiber of the community is eroded by apathetic and even antagonistic attitudes toward people experiencing homelessness. Pervasive neighborliness is replaced by random violence. Avoidance of permanent solutions like "housing first" and "rapid re-housing" only serve to extend rather than end homelessness.
24. What could happen if the number of homeless population continues to grow?
An increased number of homeless people would place more demands on the limited number of shelter beds currently available in our County. As a result, these County residents may end up sleeping in the streets, doubled-up with friends or relatives or residing in unsafe structures not suitable for habitation.
25. Is there a plan or strategy to end homelessness?
Several federal agencies and many local communities, including Pinellas County, have strategic plans to address homelessness. While there have been varying degrees of success, the most desired and enduring evidence-based outcomes have occurred in communities where there is a belief homelessness will be ended (not reduced or managed) and where there is a commitment to housing first. Community residents need not wait or rely upon government to act. Individuals, congregations, civic groups and others can work together to offer “concrete solutions to end homelessness.”
"These youth...are highly vulnerable to hunger, violence, sexual assault, drug abuse, and forced prostitution."
"...Pinellas County now has the highest rate of homelessness in the State."
"Many criminalization measures violate the human and constitutional rights of persons experiencing homelessness."
" Individuals, congregations, civic groups and others can work together to offer 'concrete solutions to end homelessness.'”