GLS currently provides housing counseling services to residents of Pinellas, Manatee, and Sarasota Counties on the central west coast of Florida. The service area includes a diverse range of vulnerable populations including elderly individuals, single parent households, minorities, documented and undocumented immigrants, domestic violence victims, LGBTQ individuals, disabled individuals, homeless individuals, ex-offenders, and other disadvantaged populations. According to City-Data.com and the U.S. Census Bureau, the tri-County area is home to 1,686,806 residents. Of those, approximately 22% are minorities; 28% are over age 65; 9% are disabled; and 4% are single parents. At least 13% are living in poverty.
According to a 2017 United Way study of financial hardship, an average of 44% of Florida households struggle to meet basic needs. Pinellas, Manatee, and Sarasota Counties account for 41%, 43%, and 38% of these households, respectively. Each county is experiencing unique challenges, but some overarching themes have surfaced amongst all three. Lack of affordable housing is a pervasive issue in the region in addition to unemployment and underemployment. The greatest rise in household expenses was driven by a 20% increase in housing costs since 2007. Needless to say, wages for low-income workers did not increase at the same pace thereby widening the affordability gap. In addition, the number of households headed by people over age 65 increased by 24% reflecting a greater population of vulnerable elderly residents, many of whom survive on fixed incomes. A fact often overlooked by those who do not struggle to meet basic needs is that it is expensive to be poor. Without savings or checking accounts, the working poor rely on expensive money orders or other nontraditional banking measures and are more likely to use payday loans that typically charge high fees and interest. Families with children must also address the cost of childcare, which can easily rival the cost of housing. These competing needs often result in household debt, which the Tampa Bay Times reported in May 2017 has begun to rise again across the U.S.
Financial stress can have a destabilizing effect on health as well. According to the Gallup-Heathways Well-Being index, Americans living in poverty are more likely than higher-income Americans to have a variety of chronic health conditions, both physical and psychological. The greatest disparity is seen in rates of depression. A book by Rita Landgraf published in 2015 describes the connection between housing instability and public health crises. Landgraf explains that financial well-being addresses many of the root causes of poor health, including creating a sense of control over one’s circumstances and future. Sadly, Florida ranks third in the nation for the highest rates among uninsured residents according to the most recent US Census data. Many persons living in poverty suffer chronic or life-threatening illnesses simply because they have no access to housing supports. Without insurance or public benefits, vulnerable families are one paycheck away from homelessness.
The tri-County region is home to many culturally and historically significant areas. Pinellas County is the most densely populated of the three counties and boasts the second highest poverty rate (14%). An estimated 45% (47,581) of Pinellas County’s total low income population lives within five identified At-Risk Zones. These At-Risk Zones include East Tarpon Springs, North Greenwood, Highpoint, Lealman Corridor, and South St. Petersburg. Each At-Risk Zone is culturally significant in that each has a history of agriculture, industry, and/or ethnic roots. South St. Pete, a historically black community and the zone with the highest level of concentrated poverty at 48%, has continued to fall into deeper and deeper disrepair. This poverty freefall began in the 1960s with desegregation and was exacerbated further in the 1970s by the construction of Interstate 275 which decimated historic black neighborhoods and businesses and crushed property values. South St. Pete has not recovered over the past four decades.
Legal intervention is often necessary in order to address housing instability. Having an attorney at one’s side adds to the sense of control over one’s circumstances and increases the likelihood of the conflict being resolved in the client’s favor. Additionally, the ability for one to speak with an attorney in a relaxed atmosphere allows the client to fully understand their housing issues and be engaged in the process of creating solutions to address outstanding financial issues.
Diversion and early intervention are integral aspects of our mission. The intervention of a legal advocate can prevent homelessness by resolving conflicts between landlord and tenants, mortgage holders and lenders, mobile home park residents and managers, etc. If legal intervention cannot prevent a client from remaining in their home, GLS facilitates arrangements for the client to be placed in a shelter or with friends and family. GLS also stays current with resources (like rent assistance) that are available for clients should legal intervention be insufficient in keeping clients in their homes.
In addition to providing housing legal services, GLS assists homeless individuals who do not have a valid form of identification. Homelessness often means that individuals have lost everything, including their birth certificate,
social security number, driver’s license, etc. Without a proper form of identification, these individuals cannot even apply for a rental lease. GLS has a financial stability team ready to assist these clients. With the enactment of the REAL ID Act, all residents of Florida are required to present their birth certificate when renewing their driver’s license or requesting a Florida ID. Homeless residents frequently encounter this barrier with no recourse. Fortunately, GLS’ financial stability team has the capacity to request original birth certificate records from all over the country and, at times, the world. This common form of identification can mean the difference between stable housing and chronic homelessness.
As a HUD Housing Counseling certified agency, our legal advocates are trained in housing counseling including budgeting, discrimination laws, tenants’ rights, etc. Every client receiving housing services is provided with a selection of resources that contribute to their overall housing stability. It in GLS’ goal to keep clients in their homes which is the basis of every housing plan. When remaining in the home is unattainable, GLS relies on the resources from partners to determine the best housing plan for clients.
GLS uses a community lawyering approach to reach individuals in low-income areas. We partner closely with community organizations who serve the same residents with the inevitable peripheral issues that surround poverty and housing. Because our legal advocates are placed where our target demographic live, work, and play, we are able to better serve them without the burden of them travelling to our office.
In addition, GLS believes in the value of data visualization which is why we have a subscription with ESRI for their ArcGIS software. To better represent the prioritization of low income residents in high risk zones, we’ve prepare a map that shows the location and demographics of the 40 mortgage foreclosure clients that were served in 2017. An interactive display is available at this link: https://arcg.is/1ufmaj. The mapped cases are color coded by AMI %; the darker the circle the lower income the client was. GLS continues to pursue innovative approaches to present case data with visualizations and continues to pursue funding to prevent homelessness through housing legal services.