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Facing homelessness? You're not alone

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Marie Simon was desperate.

She, her husband and their 4-year-old son were facing homelessness after she fell ill and lost her job. They resorted to sleeping on friends’ couches, inside her church sanctuary and anywhere else they could find. She was worried about their future.

“We were really down and out and moving from place to place,” says Simon. “I was embarrassed because we had never needed help before, but we needed to find a place to live.”

Their luck changed when she called the 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast hotline, which referred her to the Lewis Center in West Palm Beach. Through a referral to the Adopt-A-Family of the Palm Beaches program, caseworkers helped her family find housing and other assistance to help them rebound.

The front door to housing help

For hundreds of others like Simon who may find themselves homeless or on the brink of it in Palm Beach County, the Lewis Center is the first place to turn to for help. 

Named after the late State Sen. Philip D. Lewis, the center opened in 2012 to serve as the single point of entry for qualified individuals and families seeking help to avoid homelessness. Its services include assessment, medical care, interim housing, case management, life skills and vocational training, and job placement.  

“It’s like the front door to homeless-prevention services,” said Shelli Lockhart, media specialist for the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County, another of the six agencies that operate out of the center. “Clients are assessed and, if they qualify, they’re referred to an agency that can help them with their specific problems.”

In addition to the Homeless Coalition and Adopt-A-Family, other agencies at the Lewis Center include Gulfstream Goodwill Industries, the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, The Lord’s Place and Palm Beach County’s Homeless Services Program.

Each is geared to handle an individual’s or family’s specific circumstance, whether it’s substance abuse, unemployment or a health issue.  

For instance, a single mother facing homelessness may be able to immediately get donated food, temporary housing in a motel or items for infants and children through Adopt-A-Family, according to Lockhart. And the Homeless Coalition can get money for housing, such as first and last month’s rent, the security deposit and rent up to three months.

The Lewis Center offers interim housing — 40 beds for men and 20 for women — but walk-ins are not allowed. The only way to be considered is to call the center’s number at 561-904-7900. The center will return the call and determine if the individual or family qualifies for help and, if so, which agency can offer the appropriate services.

“We would love to do more, but the need is so great,” says Kat Hammer, senior director of the Lewis Center. “We’re just a little spoke in a big wheel when it comes to fighting homelessness.”

Many additional services available

Other programs in Palm Beach County offer different kinds of help.

The team at 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast offers a website and a hotline — 2-1-1 — that provides referrals, phone numbers and links to a host of services, including applying for help with food, money and utilities.

“Call 211 and we will help them navigate through the list of service providers,” says Patrice Schroeder, 211 community relations specialist. “Our staff is trained to find the best fit for our callers.”

The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County hosts seminars countywide that provide tips on how to fight unfair evictions and other housing issues. Details on its landlord/tenant and fair housing programs are available at 561-655-8944, says Tequisha Myles, a supervising attorney for Legal Aid. They also offer advice on consumer advocacy and how to force a landlord to repair serious health or safety violations.

“We’re a free legal resource for the community, so I encourage anyone who may be having a problem with their landlord to take advantage of our services,” Myles says.

Help for homeless students, too

The Palm Beach County School District also offers help for homeless students through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The act allows for the district to track homeless students and help them remain on equal academic footing with their peers, said Beth Lefler, a homeless liaison specialist for the school district.

The school district sends out a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year, but families can call Lefler’s office at 561-494-1569.

The federal act demands that students be allowed to remain in their school of origin, that they be provided transportation, be allowed to enroll immediately even if they don’t have the required records and that their records must be transferred in a timely fashion.

As of April 1, 2016, 3,333 students were identified as homeless, Lefler said. But the number could be much higher because some parents don’t fully share their housing status.

“It’s a huge stigma,” Lefler says. “Also, some parents think [the Florida Department of Children and Families] will come take away their kids and that’s simply not true in most cases.”

Advocates fighting to end homelessness say the biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing in Palm Beach County. Until housing prices drop or the minimum wage increases dramatically, thousands of individuals and families will live in fear of suddenly being homeless.

“Far too many families are living on minimum-wage jobs and living paycheck to paycheck. They’re never going to be able to have steady housing,” Lefler says. “The resources for people experiencing homelessness are far outstripped by the need.”

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