Manatee County witnessed a surge in the homeless population camping out in tree-covered secluded places and even sleeping on the hard concrete of a sidewalk or a stoop with an overhang for rain protection. Those sights, as heart-wrenching as they can be, should not be an invitation to a handout of money. Nobody who assists and works with the homeless thinks a dollar here and a dollar there is the answer. The money could go to sinful purposes.
Instead of money, give them a card with contact information designed to assist the homeless with lots of social services that could end their homelessness, from rental and utility assistance, even medical care, counseling, life skills help, employment guidance and much more. The card directs the homeless recipient to call 211. Operators will direct callers to the appropriate agency that can help with their individual problems.
While Turning Points, located at the Bill Galvano One Stop Center in Bradenton, is a vital component of Manatee County’s homeless assistance, other social service and community agencies and organizations, including the Salvation Army, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, Bradenton Police Department and the Bradenton Herald are partners in the 211 initiative to combat homelessness. Those 211 cards can be found at numerous businesses and organizations in Manatee County.
And maybe, just maybe, a card — the size of a business card — can turn lives around. Those cards, new last month, can be picked up at numerous places (see list below).
Who knows? When a panhandler asks for money, hand over a 211 card instead. You might be giving that person time to reflect on a life gone astray and possibly holding a hand out for assistance — without ever knowing your good deed.
In January’s annual “Point-in-Time” survey conducted by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, the population of the homeless jumped from 2015 to 2016 — growing by 270 people in Manatee and Sarasota counties. The vast majority of those occurred in Manatee County, with 201 more people in the homeless ranks. Overall the trend in homelessness has been rising since 2013 — by more than 400 people, from 1,049 to 1,448.
We should all remember these are not all creepy people — some are, let’s be real, but an unfriendly visceral reaction to one and all is truly not warranted. That person could be a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder unable to cope with a debilitating condition. That person could be a woman escaping domestic violence. Or they could be that family who lost their home and their means of support for any reason — a job loss, the death of a spouse, severe illness, no health insurance. They need help — and all too often don’t know where to turn. Personal tragedy throws people out into the streets, into shelters, in their cars, anywhere where the loss of security is a constant reminder of danger.
This survey is a national census conducted to inform communities of the homeless situation devoid of other “at-risk” categories that other counts included. Thus, society can take aim at certain populations of homeless. At the Suncoast partnership found, the number of veteran showed the smallest increase and families with children declined.
But adults without children — including couples, the elderly and older youth — are by far the largest population of homeless, accounting for 92 percent of the census figure. Within that group, more than 311 are chronically homeless individuals.
The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness offers sensible perspectives about the homeless, the overriding ideas being these, all in the words of the organization: remember, every situation is unique; reserve judgment; treat them as you would wish to be treated if you needed assistance (truly, a biblical lesson); and respond with kindness (another biblical instruction).
Don’t give money. Give food. A trail bar. Nuts. Fruit. Or take the person to a sandwich shop. If they refuse food, that’s a signal that they want something else, something you should not help them get.
Some 170 volunteers ventured out into the camps and the shadows, beneath bridges and overhands, and anywhere the homeless gather to count the homeless. Kudos to their selfless efforts. The 2017 census is coming up, too, so volunteers are needed once again.
Turning Points “provides friendly, caring, compassionate assistance to people that come for help with a wide variety of issues,” as the nonprofit’s mission statement says. Few people choose to be homeless — this is not an aspirational condition. Turning Points, the Open Door Day Resource Center and other assistance headquartered at the One Stop Center provide basic services — from medical and dental care to assistance with house and utility payments, afforable housing and job searches — “all to help people move on a path to improve their situation, and ultimately, to independence if possible.”
Full disclosure: Bradenton Herald Publisher Bob Turner came up with the idea of the 211 card as part of the newspaper’s “Together Manatee” initiative, a new organization this year that unites diverse community leaders on a mission to improve Manatee County’s quality of life.
The 211 cards can be picked up for free at the Herald, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, the Manatee Community Foundation and Rice’s Appliance and Outdoor Power. These cards cannot be used to buy drugs or alcohol but can guide the homeless to life-changing transitions.