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Social media being used to put a face on Bradenton’s homeless

The only possible path to finding some kind of resolution to Manatee County’s homelessness problem must begin at the street level, according to Laura Licoski, founder of Home is Where the Heart is.

Licoski recently launched a Facebook page called Facing Homelessness, Bradenton, which is part of a larger national network that began in Seattle and is spreading across the country. Licoski is one of many individuals and organizations who want to help the homeless, but that is actually part of the problem.

“No one is working together,” said Licoski, which is an issue Bill Galvano One Stop Center and Turning Points Executive Director Adell Erozer brought up at a Bradenton Herald Homeless Summit late last year featuring Sen. Bill Galvano and other local leaders.

“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,” Erozer said last November. “I’m looking for collaboration.”

Licoski said social media is becoming the greatest asset in understanding homelessness, “from the street level, not from the top down. On this page you will start seeing what I mean by that because every time I go out, I find different ways to creatively get the homeless not only involved, but to enjoy it.”

Licoski recently attended a wedding of two homeless people in New Orleans that was featured on another city’s Facing Homelessness site. The community read about their stories and a wedding shop donated a dress, among other things. Locally, some of the homeless got involved to make paper flowers, “so they feel like they are part of something special instead of feeling sorry for themselves,” said Licoski.

The site also is designed to help the community get more involved. Licoski said most people want to help, or in some cases, “They volunteer to serve meals, but they walk away and think they are helping. People want to help, but often don’t know what to do or how. People can visit this page and see what we are trying to do and either get involved with me or get ideas for themselves.”

While Licoski is hopeful the site will be a rallying point for all those people and agencies who feel like they are on an island trying to help the homeless get off the streets, the Facebook page is all about showing, “A lot of love and compassion,” she said. “And hopefully it will show different ways the community can get involved and inspired.”

Rex Hohlbein started the Facebook Facing Homelessness that has spread to large cities like Denver and Los Angeles. Bradenton is the first Florida Facing Homelessness social media project. He is a successful architect in the Emerald City and became inspired one day when he took a seat on a park bench next to a homeless man.

They engaged in a conversation and the man turned out to be a talented artist who was struggling to survive. Hohlbein provided the man with a place to get a fresh start and the “Just Say Hello” concept, that recently won local students an international award, was born. Facing Homelessness was the next logical step.

The concept is simple and a philosophy Licoski lives by through her street ministries of working with the area’s homeless. Simply start a conversation, learn the stories and then share the needs via Facing Homelessness, Bradenton Facebook page.

Licoski has been working on the streets with the homeless for three years all while maintaining a full time job herself. She is the first to acknowledge that a percentage of the homeless don’t care to leave their chosen lifestyle. She also is the first to tell them, “At what point do you think I’m obligated to help you if you won’t get off your (butt) and help yourself?”

The fiery redhead doesn’t mix words with those who are trying to work the system, but her tear-filled eyes swell quickly when she talks about the majority of those who are battling their own substance abuse demons and trying their best to recover in a world that stereotypes them as lazy.

“There is a lot of love in their hearts,” she said. “They are human beings. They are trying really hard and they deserve to be loved back.”

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