You’ve heard of the saying “the elephant in the room” — a problem, issue or topic that no one wants to address. Well, the elephant in the backyard of Hillsborough County is homelessness.
Homelessness is a problem affecting more than 600,000 people in the United States. The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative reports that as of the 2013 count, there are 1,909 people who are homeless in Hillsborough County.
The Diocese of St. Petersburg’s Presbyteral Council and Pastoral Council have been working for the past five years to find solutions to help our brothers and sisters facing homelessness throughout the five counties in our community. Our churches, some private organizations and local governments have since been working together to create emergency shelters and affordable housing.
I’m proud to share that Catholic Charities, Diocese of St. Petersburg Inc., is one of the organizations devoted to helping people find shelter. The need for shelter affects people of all walks of life, and Catholic Charities has created the Shelters of Hope programs to address those needs. We know that every individual and family’s situation is different, so the Shelters of Hope programs offer a variety of shelter solutions. However, we are not truly addressing the root of an individual’s homelessness situation unless we help them become self-sufficient again. Our Shelters of Hope programs do more than simply put a roof over a person’s head.
Thanks to a collaborative effort, we are finding success in our Shelters of Hope programs. Our partnership with the government, private organizations and churches in Pinellas County to run Pinellas Hope, a temporary emergency shelter for homeless men and women, has produced results. Since the shelter’s inception in 2007, 53 percent of individuals who received emergency shelter have been successfully transitioned.
In Pasco County, with the help of our partners, we dedicated the Pasco Women’s Shelter in late 2013. This shelter is the only non-domestic violence emergency shelter for women with or without children in our area. In addition to providing emergency and transitional shelter, the shelter offers supportive services that lead to self-sufficiency and permanent housing within the community.
Meanwhile, more than 600 people line up in their cars to receive food assistance at the newly opened Catholic Charities Outreach Center in Citrus County twice a month. At the end of January, an additional partnership will allow us to open a free dental clinic for those who, although they may have shelter, still need help to feed their families and address medical concerns. A free medical clinic is scheduled to open later this spring.
Those are just a few examples of how we are able to help. With more than 1,700 units of affordable housing in various shelter programs, Catholic Charities has the ability to help individuals with a variety of shelter needs, such as low-income seniors (HUD 202 Elderly Housing), families facing a disability (Bethany Family Apartments), adult males suffering from mental illness (Benedict Haven), low-income agricultural and farmworker families (San Jose Mission), emergency shelter for street homeless men and women (Pinellas Hope), transitional housing for homeless individuals returning to regular housing (Pinellas Hope II), individuals and families with a medical diagnosis of HIV/AIDS (HIV/AIDS Housing Services), and individuals, single parents, and families (Catholic Charities Family Housing).
The latest addition to the Catholic Charities Family Housing program will be opening at the end of the month in Hillsborough County. The Palms at University has 40 units of affordable housing for individuals, single parents and families. The grand opening will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 31, at 12708 N. 19th Street in Tampa.
Despite the many people we help with our collaborative shelter programs, there are many more in need in our community. We are willing to work with organizations, churches, and local governments — including Tampa and the Hillsborough County Commission, which have resisted our attempts at collaboration in the past — to help people in need in our community.
As Pope Francis tweeted and has made a point to show us by his example of living Matthew 25: 35-40, “If we see someone who needs help, do we stop? There is so much suffering and poverty, and a great need for good Samaritans.”
We invite all of the people in Hillsborough County and throughout the Tampa Bay area to be good Samaritans and support us in helping our brothers and sisters in need in our own backyard.
The Most Rev. Robert N. Lynch is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.