A new dawn for homeless and at-risk families

More than 2,000 adults and children in Hillsborough County will be homeless over the course of a year, according to estimates from the 2019 Point in Time Count, a measure of the number of homeless people on a specific day. Laquisha, a Tampa mother of seven, became homeless while pregnant with her youngest child after an altercation with her partner. Her children ended up in foster care while she moved among relatives, sometimes sleeping outside.

Then she heard about the nonprofit Dawning Family Services, formerly known as Alpha House. Laquisha was placed in a shelter where she had help securing daycare and housing vouchers. With a stable place to live, she found a job at a fast-food restaurant and is working toward being permanently reunited with her children.

It’s this kind of helping hand that Dawning wants to extend to needy families throughout Hillsborough County. This is a mission change for the nonprofit organization, which for nearly 40 years has been providing shelter and other services only to homeless mothers and pregnant women. The problem was, this often meant separating families because the shelter could not house children over 5 years old.

“We’ve greatly expanded our mission so we can open our doors to an entire family, as long as a minor child is part of that family,” says Chief Executive Officer Patricia Langford. “Being homeless and trying to make arrangements for older children is a huge stressor. If we remove that, parents can focus on what they need to do to get out of their homeless situation.”

To help fulfill its mission, Dawning is relocating to a site on Armenia Avenue in West Tampa. It will soon begin a capital campaign to raise about $7 million to build a 61-unit, three-story emergency shelter that can house 244 people for up to 90 days. Two existing buildings on the site will be renovated into a family welcome center and a community services building with laundry facilities and showers.

The 90-day limit is big part of Dawning’s mission to help homeless families get into permanent housing quickly, instead of into transitional housing. “With a permanent roof over their heads,” says Langford, “we can tackle the issues that led to homelessness in the first place.”

In 2020, Dawning will debut a new prevention and diversion program with services such as résumé writing, job-skills training and help to obtain qualified benefits. The aim is to help families move forward and out from either unemployment or underemployment.

“There are a lot of families who don’t need shelter but are facing big challenges,” Langford says. “People who are one rental payment away from eviction or don’t have money for utilities. We want to work with these families and not uproot them. It’s not easy coming into the homeless system. We want to do all we can to avoid that.”

Dawning wants to help families help themselves. There are no handouts. Every family works with a case manager to establish personal goals and map out a plan to meet those goals. The overarching mission is to provide assistance and guidance while promoting progress and accountability.

“We tell all our families that your past does not define your future,” Langford says. “We’re here to help them define that future and break down the barriers to a stable life.”

For more information about Dawning Family Services’ capital campaign, visit their website at dawningfamilyservices.org.

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