With upward of 900 homeless children in our local schools each year, we need a first-class system of services to ensure they can succeed.
When we tell people how many homeless students attend Sarasota County Schools, many are shocked. Some tell us it can’t be true. But the faces of homelessness have grown increasingly visible in our region, making sobering figures like this less deniable. At Gulf Coast, we won’t accept anything less than a first-class system of services to help these students and their families succeed. Considering the resources we have in this community, we can’t.
Gulf Coast began studying the homeless situation in our region early in 2012. We soon homed in on homeless children. While an array of help is available for adults, the addition of children into the equation compounds the challenges and the needs, from shelter options to childcare. As with every Gulf Coast initiative, we set out to understand the root causes of this problem and then determine how we could best invest in a systemic solution, so that every family who wants help can access it.
Linking services, filling gaps
Sarasota County does not have a centralized system or “one stop” hub for homeless services. As a result, Sarasota County Schools tries to identify and then connect homeless students to a patchwork of social services through the Schoolhouse Link program. Schoolhouse Link is like the quarterback of services for homeless students, connecting kids and their families to more than 20 different public and nonprofit social-service providers. The program helps families with everything from school supplies and transportation to referrals for emergency housing and job counseling.
Teaming up with Schoolhouse Link, Gulf Coast invited those agencies to gather under one tent—something they rarely can do when working the front lines of homelessness. Starting in December 2012, the group has met monthly, inventorying their services, identifying gaps between them, and using live case studies to tighten and improve what Salvation Army Sarasota general manager Bryan Pope early on called a “virtual system” of services for the homeless.
The tent has grown, with new service providers joining the effort, and by the end of the 2012-13 school year, we had tabulated several successes:
- More case management. Gulf Coast funded a new case worker to focus on southern Sarasota County. In her first four months, she assisted 45 families with 91 students.
- Improved tracking of services. Gulf Coast funded a new database to better track Schoolhouse Link clients and the services they receive.
- Employment and housing for unaccompanied youth. Schoolhouse Link helped develop a work program for unaccompanied youth and a transitional housing program for homeless youth between 18 and 22.
- Emergency housing in southern Sarasota County. Faith-based nonprofit Community Assistance Ministry stepped in to fill a gap by coordinating motel-room referrals and providing transportation vouchers for families in southern Sarasota County.
- Expanded childcare. The Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County partnered with Schoolhouse Link to provide emergency childcare—funded by Gulf Coast—to families that need to work, go to school, or search for employment but are not eligible for assistance from another source.
“We’ve got the resources in this community”
The next step for this initiative is to quantify the gaps that remain and then engage more philanthropists in funding solutions. As Elton White, the Gulf Coast Board member and donor who is helping to steer this effort, said, “No family should be sleeping in a car. We’ve got the resources in this community to ensure they don’t have to.”
By identifying measurable ways to tackle the root problems that result in that desperate situation, we will invite others to join us in confidently targeting those resources at a system that can transform homelessness in our region.