Pinellas County residents face hard times
2-1-1 operators field calls from people facing home evictions, health, financial and other issues
- By THOMAS MICHALSKI
The crashing economy is causing insurmountable problems for Pinellas County residents who are being faced with evictions, job loss and even homelessness.
So great are the difficulties of some individuals, that more of them than ever before are talking about suicide and even giving up their children for adoption because parents cannot afford to feed and clothe them.
Many of the pleas for assistance come to 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares that is recognized in Pinellas County as the main source of help and information for those seeking health, financial and other human services.
Mickie Thompson, 2-1-1’s executive director, said daily calls have risen from about 350 a year ago to more than 600. Operators who answer phones 24/7 have thousands of referrals where people are sent for help, but the melting economy is actually affecting even those organizations that are experiencing difficulty keeping up with the demand.
Financial resources such as help to pay rents and utilities are drying up. Many food pantries are running out of goods that help keep poor people fed, and fear is that it will become worse before it gets better.
The 2-1-1 was launched in 2000 and essentially is a merger of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and other so-called hot lines that have been around for more than 35 years. The Tampa Bay center was the eighth in the entire nation, but it only covers Pinellas and other counties.
Some areas of Florida, especially in the rural panhandle counties, lack the service. The 2-1-1 project is partly financed by the United Way, Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board and other agencies.
“We accept about 60,000 calls annually for basic needs services,” Thompson said.
In recent months, however, people who never called before are seeking assistance. It is not unusual to be dealing with hysterical single mothers, hopeless men whose families are on the verge of losing everything and suicidal individuals who have lost all hope of ever returning to normalcy.
People are even giving up long-time pets because they cannot afford to feed them. They are referred to various animal shelters.
Many of today’s adults are described as the “sandwich generation.” They must raise their own young families while dealing with elderly parents and other relatives who often need more medical and other assistance than can be provided. Often, Thompson said, the high cost of medicine and nursing times is overwhelming.
To deal with the flood of calls to the 2-1-1 call center, the agency is training operators in specialized areas. Some deal with potential suicide victims while others are trained in senior citizen problems and even tax preparation.
“A great many calls are from people who are facing eviction from their homes,” Thompson said. “We provide information on where they can get help.”
But calls are not only restricted to economic-related matters. Some seek assistance for anger management, drug and alcohol addictions and even ways to cope with problematic children.
The agency works closely with the Pinellas County Homeless Coalition, Pinellas Hope – the Catholic Charities-based tent city in Pinellas Park – and even the police street outreach teams.
“We keep track of all shelter beds and know what is available,” Thompson said. “If a homeless person calls us we can refer them to a place where he or she can stay.”
Homelessness, Thompson said, is changing. Entire families are being forced into the streets which means more calls for assistance are being made into the center. The agency’s Web site, www.211tampabay.org is busier than ever before.
“None of that is going to improve anytime soon,” Thompson said. “The predictions of a more stable economy is three to five years away.”
Iris, whose last name is being withheld upon her request, has been answering 2-1-1 calls for three years. As much as she tries, she cannot help but feel sorry for those who call.
“Many people are concerned over foreclosures, prescriptions and job loss,” Iris said between calls. “Entire families are being thrown into the streets.”
Evictees are either setting up camp on the streets or moving in with relatives and friends.
“The loss of a job also means the loss of health insurance,” Iris said. “Single parents are overwhelmed and male heads of households are giving up hope.”
Many people who worked hard all their lives never expected to have to turn to social services to meet basic living needs. They are embarrassed, hurt and angry that they cannot make it on their own.
Ray Glen is another 2-1-1 call center operator who believes that many people are reaching out for help for the first time in their lives.
“We try to calm them down and guide them through the process,” Glen said. “People call us crying on the phone, and you can’t help but feel sorry for them.”
One woman called because her utilities were being disconnected. It apparently was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“She wanted to kill herself and her daughter,” Glen said. “She said life was not worth living any longer.”
Suicide calls are handled by 2-1-1 operators and referred to experts in that field.
“Christmas is the worst time of the year for some people,” Glen said. “Some are desperate for financial assistance or have recently lost a loved one.”