How Volunteers of America’s Florida chapter helps the most vulnerable

It’s been a tough few months. Most of us are ready to get back to something close to normal. We don’t know when that will be, or what it will look like, but Volunteers of America is directly bringing resources and donations to the region’s most vulnerable.

The faith-based, nonprofit organization has been serving low-income families, seniors, veterans and individuals with severe mental illness in the Tampa Bay region for decades. Its services include providing affordable housing, behavioral health care, education and employment training. During COVID-19, its mission became even more critical.

“The pandemic exacerbated the issues so many people were already dealing with,” says Danielle DiVittorio, director of outreach and development for Volunteers of America’s Florida chapter. “It made it harder to find housing. More people were on the streets. It was a real struggle.”

Homelessness afflicts one in nearly 500 Americans. According to the 2019 Homeless Count in Hillsborough County, on any given night there are at least 1,650 homeless men, women and children on city streets.

Homelessness is insidious because victims usually slide into it. Whether it’s a pandemic, unforeseen medical expenses, an unexpected car repair or untreated mental illness, too many people live close to the abyss. One unfortunate event can tip them over the edge into homelessness.

Volunteers of America is there to stabilize people’s lives and help them prepare for a life of independence. They do this with a number of results-driven programs and supportive housing options. The organization currently serves more than 5,500 people each year, through 78 programs and services, in 28 locations from Pensacola to Key West.

One program example in our region is Arbor Place, in Hillsborough County. It provides housing, and supportive services, to homeless individuals, and families, with severe and persistent mental health diagnoses. In exchange for safe housing and services such as psychotherapy, participants pledge to remain clean and sober and to interact with the community through volunteer work, employment or attending school.

Jeff, a Navy veteran identified only by his first name to maintain anonymity, successfully completed the program and says, “If you need the help and support, this is the place you need to be. They’re not going to do it for you but they’ll give you all the support you need. I recently got my associate’s degree with a 3.89 GPA. Not bad for a 65-year-old guy.”

The Persons with Psychiatric Disabilities Program provides supportive housing for adults with severe mental illness. Participants pay rent, based on individual income, and in return are required to attend medical appointments and remain clean and sober. They also must seek employment, go to school or volunteer in the community, while avoiding repetitive hospitalizations or jail time.

This program helped Al, also identified only by his first name to maintain anonymity, to manage his mental illness and become a productive member of society. “The most difficult thing, since I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was holding down a job and having a social life,” he says. “Now I have both.”

What makes Volunteers of America unique is that it looks at the whole person, and what is needed on an ongoing basis, to encourage independent living.

“We don’t just place people in housing,” DiVittorio says. “We make sure people have furniture, food, connections to benefits and what they need to be successful. During the pandemic, we addressed additional needs, like making sure people had working phones or even supplies for kids to do schoolwork at home.”

Deemed an essential service, Volunteers of America staff worked through stay-at-home and social distancing mandates. “Our staff is amazing,” DiVittorio says. “They worked the whole time to make sure participants had what they needed. They were willing to put their own health at risk to help others. It was very special.”

Volunteers made masks and donated food. From May through June, the organization prepared and delivered over 500 meals.

“Over our 100 years of service, we have faced many adversities to include hurricanes, funding and more. Now we can add COVID-19 to that list as well,” says Janet Stringfellow, president & CEO, Volunteers of America of Florida. “Like in every crisis that our state has experienced, our leadership in the trenches rose to the challenge and continued the provision of services under unprecedented circumstances. Crisis has always given us the opportunity to do more and stretch beyond our own human faith. Keeping those that we serve safe is like the quote, ‘It will never be easy, but it will always be worth it.’ ” ♦

Volunteers of America accepts monetary and in-kind donations.

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