Maybe sometimes it takes a child to raise a village. Or help inspire one.
Meredith Roberts, a senior at Manatee High School, could serve as the poster child for citizen activism that invigorates a broader campaign to help the homeless.
A forward on the Canes' varsity soccer team who is also involved with the Braden River Soccer Club, Meredith launched the SOPHIE project last year to raise awareness and goods for the county's homeless students. SOPHIE stands for Soccer Outreach for Project Heart Instills Empathy. While her admirable effort focuses on the disturbing number of homeless students -- which the district puts at around 2,000 out of a total enrollment of 48,000 -- homelessness countywide defies a broad solution.
Community conversations on homelessness are just beginning in Manatee County, with the first one sponsored by the Manatee League of Women Voters in October followed by a Bradenton Herald roundtable in November. The Manatee Tiger Bay Club will host a third discussion in December, this coming Thursday.
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But then what? Is there a will and a way to keep pushing this issue into the community's consciousness to gain critical mass working toward solutions?
At the Herald roundtable, Manatee County Commission Chair Betsy Benac brought up the key roadblock, saying there has been a plan in place with great ideas for 10 years, "but for whatever reason can't be implemented. So how do we get past not being able to implement that plan?"
In two words, dogged determination. But the plan needs updating since circumstances have changed dramatically.
Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota are several years ahead of Manatee on developing and implementing a homelessness strategy. Two years ago as the problems associated with the homeless population grew, the governments brought in a national expert on homelessness. Political quarreling ensued. Persistence, though, led to the creation of two new shelters for homeless families, but other initiatives remain stalled.
Both city and county agree about the need for an emergency shelter, but the city stands adamantly against one near downtown. The city also stands firmly behind moving ahead with a "Housing First" strategy to put the long-time homeless into subsidized, permanent housing that also offers services. Both governments are still negotiating, which is a good sign.
Sarasota County Commissioner Carolyn Mason, one of the speakers at the Woman's Club forum, acknowledged the friction between the two governments on siting services but "working together will get us where we need to be."
Manatee County should start down a similar path, first drawing stakeholders into discussions as the issue will never disappear.
As the executive director of Turning Points, Adell Erozer stands at the forefront of homelessness -- alongside the Salvation Army of Manatee County. Headquartered in the Bill Galvano One Stop Center, Turning Points served 9,119 clients in 2014 with this year's total to date at more than 9,650. Some 5,000 of those were classified as "literally homeless."
At the Herald roundtable, Erozer pinpointed the challenge ahead: "What we've done here is create a great network of services, but we haven't looked at what we can do to get people off the streets. Shelters are over capacity and they do not get people off the street. I'm looking for collaboration with those that can develop housing strategies."
The key is public-private partnerships such as the "Housing First" initiatives employed in other communities to create affordable living space.
In this instance, a philanthropic group plans to purchase and redevelop the Knights Inn on First Street into affordable housing with studio apartments renting for $600 per month. A wealthy Sarasota County businessmen, Harvey Vengroff, and other investors are involved.
Vengroff has successfully converted three motels into affordable housing. His projects also involve mentoring for the job market; medical services, and other services, quite a community commitment to change lives. Kudos to Vengroff and company for taking the initiative.
On a smaller but no less inspirational scale, an 18-year-old hopes to make a difference. Meredith Roberts incorporated the name of the school district's program for homeless students -- Project Heart -- into the name of her SOPHIE effort. She sets up a table and buckets at soccer matches and collects money and goods, working with the district to distribute the hygiene kits, clothing, food and other items.
"Most people are really surprised when they learn about it," Meredith told the Herald. Indeed. Cheers to you.
What's next on the homeless issue in Manatee County? Are citizens, officials and stakeholders galvanized to tackle this? Manatee County and the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto should take the lead in partnership with Turning Points and the Salvation Army, and, we suggest, a broad-based task force to put momentum on this tough issue.
Let's get started.