ST PETERSBURG, Fla. – A new food kitchen in south St. Petersburg hopes to help feed the record number of homeless families in Pinellas County.
The Pinellas County School District ended last school year with nearly 5,000 students homeless, and officials said they are already seeing record numbers again this year, largely due to the associated pandemic. to the rising cost of living in Tampa Bay.
Pastor Deborah Hill of New Hope Of Glory Ministries in St. Pete had a vision to make sure no child in her town went to bed hungry.
“My mother was a single parent and she raised six children on her own on $80 a week. She then took that food, the little food we had, and it was shared with people in the community,” Hill told ABC Action News.
This month, she opens the doors of the Bridge of Hope Kitchen on 62nd Ave. South, so that children and families experiencing homelessness can have a hot lunch and access to a computer for homework.
When we spoke with Pinellas County Schools Homeless Liaison Christine Cantrell last March, she said they were seeing a 3,000% increase in calls from families facing homelessness.
“We’re seeing an increase in our car, college students living in their car and having to go to Walmart parking lots and so on – safe places – because they just don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Cantrell said county resources are stretched thin, shelters are full and more and more children are on what they call their priority list for housing.
“We are seeing a marked increase in the number of families losing their homes due to the price of their lease,” Cantrell explained. “Families who have to stay in their vehicles. Many of them are trying to get back where families and friends temporarily the percentage of our hotels, we are seeing an increase in that.
The district begins the school year with a questionnaire where parents can identify themselves as homeless. Cantrell said it was even more important this year for students to qualify for a free lunch since the national program ended.
As of September 1, the district has identified 1,520 homeless students. That’s up 17% from a year earlier at 1,299.
But as families move on and staff identify more students throughout the year, Cantrell said that number is growing exponentially.
She explained that in 2021 the numbers dropped because enrollment overall dropped due to online learning during the pandemic, but over the past 15 years it has only increased.
Last school year ended with 4,674 students identified as homeless, more than ever.
“All the shelters are full and all the social service agencies we partner with are doing a fabulous job of trying to get through that priority list, but the need far outweighs the services available,” he said. she declared.
The district relies on partnerships with nonprofits like Bridge of Hope Kitchen to ensure parents can feed their children, which is also very personal for community leaders like the senator from Tampa Bay in Florida. , Daryl Rouson.
“I was homeless at one point with a 4-year-old son and was wondering if we were going to eat or not that night,” Rouson told ABC Action News. “We know we live in a food desert, food insecurities have been highlighted due to the pandemic, so providing nutrition that will help with learning is just awesome.”
He was one of dozens who showed up to applaud the grand opening of the Bridge of Hope Kitchen this summer.
“As long as there is breath in the body, there is hope,” Hill told the crowd at the opening.
“Kids shouldn’t have to worry about where they’re going to eat… When there are so many of us, it can help make a difference,” Hill said.
The kitchen will officially open to the public on September 27. It will be open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
They are always recruiting volunteers for cooking and tutoring, as well as accepting donations.
To get involved, visit their website here.