ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Toward the end of February 2020, Karen Kirkpatrick was evicted from her low-income apartment in St. Petersburg. For about nine months, Karen was homeless.
A few weeks before Pinellas County issued a safer-at-home order, Karen sought refuge at homeless shelters. As the coronavirus infection rate started to rise, shelters were no longer an option.
"The hardest part about it was realizing, everyone had kind of forgotten about the homeless," Karen shared during a Zoom interview with 10 Tampa Bay.
"What was upsetting to me is that many of the shelters made the decision to close their doors. You're supposed to be sheltering in place, and you don't have a place to shelter," said Karen.
Karen explained how surreal it was to witness the city of St. Petersburg close down. "We were all watching these empty streets that are usually full of cars. It was like a no man's land. It was really eerie."
Even though the streets were empty, Karen worried about finding a safe place to sleep once the sun set.
At the beginning of her journey, she slept behind churches and in between shrubs at hospitals around St. Pete. But she found solace at the beach, where she eventually slept out in the open on the sand instead of under the boardwalk where canopies and umbrellas are stored.
To help prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus among members of the homeless population, the Cares Act included a $4 billion Emergency Solutions Grant for Homelessness Assistance.
Communities with the greatest need could use the grant to help with rapid rehousing and rental deposit assistance.
"Maybe I didn't meet the criteria, or perhaps they were quarantining after staying closed for so many months and only slowly, letting people in," Karen explained. "The bottom line is, I couldn't get in."
Homeless families with children are usually the first to receive help from local and federal grants, followed by homeless military veterans.
"The homeless individual, male and female, are the last of the homeless population for funding," said Michael Raposa, CEO of St. Vincent de Paul CARES.
On December 10, St. Vincent de Paul received a $5 million grant awarded by the Bezos Family Foundation's Day One Families Fund. The money is reserved for 400 homeless families with children.
Raposa explained funding for homeless individuals is finally making its way down the pipeline.
"We are hiring now, to begin to target homeless male and homeless female individuals that they're not traveling with children," he said.
"They are the last ones to be served," Raposa said. "There's just no denying that. And the sad thing is the amount of money that is present and among us right now is not enough to scratch the surface. We need more."
After months of living on the streets and facing the harsh reality of being last on the homeless priority list, Karen turned to social media for help.
"At first, I was really hesitant to come out to let people know I was homeless," Karen said.
People from St. Pete's art community saw Karen's post on Facebook.
"They funded enough money for me, along with the funds I have, to get a room," she said.
Although her living situation is temporary, Karen said she is grateful to have a place to live.
"And I can cook meals and take showers like most of us," she said.
However, Karen still worries about families who are on the brink of losing their home and could wind up living on the streets. Once the eviction moratorium is no longer enforceable, there will be more.
The nationwide eviction moratorium was set to expire on Dec. 31, but lawmakers finally agreed to a new stimulus package a few days before Christmas. It's unclear if the president will sign it. If he does, the eviction moratorium would be extended through the end of January 2021.
Even with the extra four weeks, an estimated 40 million people in the United States could face eviction within the next several months.
According to a study by Advisor Smith, nearly 15 percent of Florida renters are at risk of being evicted. Researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, which measured household experiences during the coronavirus pandemic. The firm pulled data from Phase 3 of the survey, from the Week 18 survey, which was conducted between Oct. 28 and Nov. 9.
Porch.com conducted a study of its own and found that 7,063 families with children are homeless in Florida. The home services platform dug through the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development's 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, released in January 2020.
"There's no excuse to live in the richest country on the planet and experience what we're experiencing, especially in this time of year," Raposa said.
"Those of us who made it through the door to the middle class, those of us who have blessings around us, and comfortable beds that we sleep in at night - we're selfish to forget the people who don't have them. It's wrong."
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