Living in Tampa, it is hard to miss the homeless people with signs on the corners of every street begging for help or money. The number of hungry and homeless people in Hillsborough County has increased tremendously over the past couple of years due to the failing economy. People have lost their jobs as companies have down-sized, leaving families to suffer. Parents have had to make the difficult decisions whether to pay the rent or buy groceries each week. As a result, Hillsborough County has the largest homeless population in the state of Florida, according to the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, or HCoHC (1). The National Alliance to End Homelessness conducted a census in 2009 concluding there were around 55,599 homeless people in the state of Florida (2). That puts Florida as the state with the third highest homeless population, only after California and New York. A biennial survey that was done in 2009 by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County tallied the number of homeless people at 9,566 (1). This means that about 1 in every 6, or 17.2 percent of the homeless people in Florida live in Hillsborough County. Homelessness is increasing as well. From 2008 to 2009, homelessness increased by 11 percent in Florida (2).
As homelessness increases, the stereotypes and prejudices increase as well. However these stereotypes are not typically true. It is the stereotype that everyone on the streets has a history of drug and alcohol addiction and brought the situation upon themselves. However of the 9,566 homeless people in Hillsborough County:
23% are children
81 % are NOT involved with drugs or alcohol
63 % do NOT have a mental illness, and only
03 % has the HIV/AIDS virus (3).
The HCoHC quoted staggering numbers that 1,700 children in the public school system were homeless on the day the survey was taken. There were only about 1,500 beds available each night in 2009, and with 9,566 on the streets, that leaves about 8,000 without a shelter or bed to sleep in each night. Since 2009, the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County has taken another survey with the rough count being about 13,000 people just in Hillsborough County in 2011, says Nikol Purvis, a journalist reporting on the events of the latest survey (4).
Can you imagine working at a company that decided to downsize during the recession? Can you imagine being a single parent who has been laid off? You go out to find other jobs comparable to the one you went to college for, yet would soon realize that no one is hiring. After a while, you start to put in applications to places below what you were trained for, such as at fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and janitorial positions. If they even call you back, you receive answers back saying you were “over-qualified” for the position. Meanwhile, the bills keep piling up. You have a little money saved up, but after six months of electricity bills, water bills, telephone bills, car insurance, rent, and groceries, available finances begin to dwindle. Eventually, you have to choose which bills were important enough to keep paying and which you had to skip for the month. It’s a snowball effect that takes everything away from you in what seems like a blink of an eye. However no story is the same as the next. The homeless are not just a collective generalized group, but are individuals struggling to survive on their own. These people include a Veteran wounded in battle and waiting for disability checks, an abandoned child who just got out of the foster care system when they turned 18, a man who became addicted to pain medication after an accident without the resources to get help, a man with a mental illness without medical insurance, and a woman who’s only other option is to live in an abusive situation at home. No story is the same as the next and no one should be treated uniformly.
Along with the hardships that people face, such as worrying about shelter and food and obtaining a job, the people who live on the streets have to be extremely worried about their personal safety. Violence and discrimination against homeless people is continuously on the rise. The National Coalition for the Homeless compiled reports of violence in the ten year span between 1999 and 2009, totally in over 1,070 different attacks with 291 resulting in death. In 2009 alone there were a total of 117 attacks with 43 resulting in death and 74 being non-lethal (5). The people who commit these hate-crimes are typically individuals with an unjustified reason. The attacks were unwarranted, but rather people were taking their misconceptions and problems and using the people without protection on the streets as a scapegoat. These crimes consist of beatings, rapes or sexual assaults, setting homeless on fire, shootings, and police harassment and brutality (5). Laws have been set in certain states against these actions; however the number of these crimes is still increasing. The National Coalition for the Homeless alongside with AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteers started a program in Florida to educate people about homelessness in order to curtail the amount of violence against them.
No one should have to live in a situation where they are not sure when or where their next bite of food will come from. No man, woman, or child should be without the basics of life: a roof over their head, clothes on their back, and food in the pantry. Everyone has the right to feel safe when they go to sleep at night, whether in a house, under a bridge, or in an unsupervised shelter. This is an enormous issue in Hillsborough County, especially in Tampa. The people in Tampa who are able to support themselves and their family need to help others in the city who are unable to do the same for their families. These people are looked down upon and stereotyped as drug addicts, alcoholics, and criminals. They are ignored, harassed by police officers, and thought of as disgusting people. They are discriminated against and not given the help that they need to get back on their feet. This is a social injustice against our own Hillsborough residents and it needs to be rectified. The only way that stereotypical prejudices will cease to exist is through education and awareness of what our fellow Tampa citizens are trying to survive through.