How to end homelessness? Tampa Bay area nonprofits bring fresh, new approaches

Directors of Tampa Bay area nonprofit organizations are on the front lines of the local effort to end homelessness. 

From developing urban rest stops and locations for people to fill water bottles to expanding mental health programming, local charities are stepping up in innovative ways to confront the issue.

Below are just a few of organizations led by visionaries working to help the homeless while aiming to end homelessness. 

Blanket Tampa Bay and SALT Outreach – (Tampa)

FOCUS: Blankets and hygiene items for area homeless

VISION: Permanent urban rest stops that feature showering and clothes washing facilities

When Blanket Tampa Bay founder Beth Ross set out to provide blankets to homeless individuals three years ago, she never expected to spark major change. Ross’s idea resonated with people, though: by Christmas Day, 308 homeless individuals had a blanket to offer warmth and comfort.

“The offers to help were immediate,” she says of the near-instant donor response.

Ross formed Blanket Tampa Bay soon afterward. A 501c3 organization, Blanket Tampa Bay accepts donations of blankets, clothes and hygiene products; it then partners with volunteer groups to distribute them. One such organization is SALT Outreach. It’s clockwork, this joint effort: every Monday night, a queue forms outside St. Peter Claver Church on Nebraska Avenue. Homeless persons go through the line and collect seasonal items. SALT-affiliated families share food and drinks.

Blanket Tampa Bay will always be involved in this effort, says Ross, but she’s ready to expand the mission. A recent trip to tour Seattle’s urban rest stops sparked her resolve to adapt the innovative concept to permanent locations in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas Counties. 

The homeless have access to some shower facilities in the Bay Area, she says, but often must don the same dirty clothes afterward. Ross envisions permanent urban rest stops that feature restrooms and laundry facilities as well as showers. People seeking work would head out for the day clean and rejuvenated, she says, with greater confidence and likely greater chance to achieve gainful employment.

“We can provide this basic dignity for them,” she says. “It can make all the difference.”

HOW TO HELP: Blanket Tampa Bay accepts donations such as blankets and hygiene products, as well as seasonal items like mittens, coats and rain gear. Donate specifically toward the construction of Urban Rest Stops. 

Homeless Empowerment Program (HEP) – (Clearwater campus)

FOCUS: All-encompassing services to break the cycle of homelessness

VISION: Expanded residence opportunities and additional specialized programs

On any given day near the 8-acre HEP complex in Clearwater, veterans ready rows of kale, collard greens and tomatoes for harvest on a plot the size of half a football field. Children await the arrival of a school bus at the Children’s Learning Center. Families move from the street to a permanent home, finally finding a long-term place for that “Welcome” mat.

“What makes HEP so impactful is our ability to do even more than house and feed our clients,” says President and CEO Terrance McAbee. “Our extensive wrap-around services help people actually break the cycle of homelessness.”

Those services range from job assistance to family housing to meals where the HEP garden’s bounty is the highlight. HEP’s difference, McAbee states, is not that volunteers serve 90,000 meals per year to those in need, or that their community building was recently remodeled into a 4,000-square-foot workplace center. It’s not the specialized housing for veterans and families, the dormitory-like shelter for those needing immediate care. It’s that all these services exist within one domain. 

“This is an innovative way to approach homelessness,” McAbee says. “We treat the cause, the root of the issue, from all angles.” 

He points to Homeless Empowerment Program’s latest additions, a Go-Healthy chronic disease self-management program and wellness program, as examples. Participating residents receive guidance about medications, healthy living practices and stress reduction techniques. 

Though the hub of the program is its campus, HEP has expanded to single-family homes across Clearwater. An in-house maintenance crew and volunteers like Matt Tiernan renovate the abodes to make them move-in ready. The remodeling projects also offer a chance to teach trades, Tiernan says, like drywall and tile work. A longtime HEP volunteer, Tiernan sees an immediate need for more funding to facilitate necessary repairs.

“Most of these homes date from the 1920’s, but with a little TLC, we make them places where families find a fresh start, “ he says.

Donations are needed for a variety of requirements, including food (two full-time cooks are on staff) and support services. One of the most pressing expenses is maintenance of campus buildings. The organization’s extremely low operational budget ensures that funds primarily go to those in need.

“We could be a model for the rest of the country,” McAbee says. “Some people need just a short time here; others must take years to address challenges. I’ve seen successes from all walks of life.”

HOW TO HELP: Donate time, funds or manpower. Those interested in volunteering are interviewed by a volunteer coordinator and are extremely appreciated for whatever skills they may lend. Volunteers include medical professionals, children and more. HEP’s 1,000+ active volunteers have saved the organization close to $1 million in labor costs.

Daystar Life Center (St. Petersburg)

FOCUS: Meeting the needs of the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless

VISION: A new location for a thrift shop, seasonal items, widespread water stations

For those who teeter on the edge of homelessness, Daystar in St. Petersburg provides a gentle push to help them stand on solid ground again. Their assistance can be as simple as a bus pass; it can be as complicated as an investigation into undelivered benefits. Executive Director Jane Trocheck Walker and her volunteers often add a dose of creativity to their problem solving.

“We can break our own rules when we need to,” she says. “No two people who come through our doors have the same story.”

Take, for example, the young mother who arrives at Daystar asking for help obtaining an identification card. After an initial interview led by a volunteer, it’s uncovered that she also needs diapers and childcare. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; Daystar volunteers get right to work crafting a personalized plan. 

“We’re not a drop-in center for the homeless, but we really can help with those elements that are holding people back,” Walker says. 

Communication is a huge issue that Daystar tackles on an ongoing basis. Job hunters need a permanent address to list on a resume; Daystar provides it. Approximately 1,900 people receive mail there, and some envelopes include W2s and other official paperwork. If a person hasn’t received an important document, volunteers help get to the bottom of the matter.

Everyday items like bug spray and sunscreen are always in demand. Water bottles are popular. Walker cites the need for more water stations, and cites proper hydration as a huge problem for the homeless population. Without basic needs met like accessible water, she says, people simply cannot function. Thirty percent of Daystar clients are completely homeless. The rest are dangerously close.

Future plans for Daystar Life Center include a new location for its Thrift Shop, which Walker refers clients to for clothing and household items. With more donations, Walker would purchase more ID covers, which protect an identification card’s magnetic strip from being compromised. Ponchos are on the always-needed list. And funds to obtain documentation like birth certificates are must-haves as well.

HOW TO HELP: Donate time or funds. Each person who receives assistance from Daystar is assigned a one-on-one interview. This, Walker says, ensures that the client’s needs are properly identified – and this practice takes volunteers. A new location for the Thrift Store is being sought after, and day-to-day items like hygiene products are always in short supply.

Additional Tampa Bay area homeless resources include:Know of additional organizations that help tackle the local homelessness issue? Please share with readers in the comments section below.

Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a freelance writer and author of children’s books that encourage the next generation to attend college. When not indoctrinating youth about the necessity of higher education, she enjoys exploring the paradise that is her St. Petersburg home. She holds a degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida and a Masters in Secondary English Education from the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in such venues as the Tampa Bay Times. Children’s Book Titles by Amy Hammond include: When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Gator; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a ‘Nole; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Bull; When I Grow Up, I’m Bama Bound; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Tiger.