Stopping The Growth of The More Than 800 Homeless in Tallahassee

A New Era Dawns in the Quest to End Homelessness in Tallahassee

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Tonia Miller felt her world was falling apart. An accomplished, college-educated business professional with two kids, the 43-year-old Navy veteran couldn’t believe what was happening. For the second time in her life, she was about to become homeless.

The first time, she was living in Jacksonville and managing a Blue Cross Blue Shield call center. It was 2009, and the nation was in the throes of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like many other people across the country, she found herself laid off from work. To get by, Miller cashed in her pension and thought she could get along on that until things changed. She also thought that with her credentials and 25 years of experience, she would be a “hot commodity” and not have any trouble finding work.

Mark Wallheiser/

Two men sleep under the Apalachee Parkway bridge in the shadow of the Capitol in December 1986, the year several homeless men died because of freezing cold weather in Tallahassee. 

It didn’t work out that way.

“When I was ready to return to work, work wasn’t there,” she said.

Sadly, Miller and her two teenage sons lost their home and spent the next four months in hotels, or staying with friends and relatives. They eventually moved back to Tallahassee, where she was born and where her mom still lived. Fortunately, Miller found work and happily set about settling in to a new life.

That lasted about a year. Then bad luck struck again when she got caught up in a company-wide series of layoffs.

She received unemployment, but in time it was exhausted. Then her kids turned 18 and she stopped receiving child support.

“I literally was without an income at all. I was at my wit’s end,” she said.

With the rent due and unable to pay it, Miller started looking for help. She turned to the 2-1-1 Big Bend referral service, which helps people in her situation connect with the resources that best fit their needs. But another quandary presented itself.

“They have this list of agencies that help people who meet a particular set of criteria, and none of them applied (to me),” she said. “The longer I spoke to them, the more hopeless I felt. Like, ‘Oh my God, now what?’”

Then the 2-1-1 adviser asked her one last question. Was she ever in the military? Well, yes, she was. And that’s how she was directed to the Big Bend Homeless Coalition, which connected her with a program that helps homeless veterans.

“It literally was like a lifeline of hope,” she said. “Here we were facing homelessness again. But part of Big Bend’s efforts is to prevent you from becoming homeless if you have a place already, and they work to try and help you keep that. And so they were a bridge for several months while I diligently sought work, and I became re-employed.”


The Face of Homelessness

Miller and her family were pulled back from the edge in the nick of time, but many people still need help.

In any given day in Tallahassee and Leon County, you’ll find some 800 homeless people. You see them on the streets, waiting for a bunk at The Shelter, or in remote camps out in the wilds of the surrounding area. Some are ill, both physically and mentally. Some are old and at the end of their rope. Some are down on their luck; they’ve lost jobs, been kicked out of their apartments or homes, or are fleeing a violent spouse. Some are kids that, while not “homeless,” are shuffled around from one family unit to another and live in a constant state of insecurity. Some don’t want help or don’t realize that help is available. But Tonia Miller’s case proves it can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. She said people who aren’t in that situation tend to make assumptions or draw the wrong conclusions about homeless people.

“I think they assume that they are people who don’t work hard or there’s something wrong with them, or they may be looked upon like, ‘How do you allow yourself to be in this situation?’ But when you consider me, with a college education, I have almost 25 years of call center operations and management, and here I am, the new face of homelessness. You could be a professional person. You never know.”
— Veteran Tonia Miller

“I think they assume that they are people who don’t work hard or there’s something wrong with them, or they may be looked upon like, ‘How do you allow yourself to be in this situation?’” she said. “But when you consider me, with a college education, I have almost 25 years of call center operations and management, and here I am, the new face of homelessness. You could be a professional person. You never know.”

Susan Pourciau, executive director of the Big Bend Homeless Coalition, knows that there’s no such thing as your typical homeless person, nor is there a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.

For starters, 20 percent to 25 percent of the homeless population is what’s called “chronically homeless.” Those are people who have been homeless for a long time and likely have both mental health and substance abuse issues.

“For those people, the research and the experience is clear that the best way to help them get out of homelessness is to provide an apartment for them and help them in paying their rent,” Pourciau said. “To be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get a good-paying job and live happily ever after — that’s not going to happen for that group. So we just need to be realistic. We don’t want people living on the streets or in our woods, which is where a lot of people live. But they do want to move into apartments if they get a little bit of help. And we have programs in our community that do that, and they are just wildly successful.”

Other homeless people might be survivors of domestic violence, and if they are leaving their home because they’re trying to get to a safe space they still qualify as homeless. That’s because they don’t have a place to stay.

“The people who are in the most unsafe situations go to Refuge House, which is our domestic violence shelter, but a lot of people come in to just the regular programs. Mostly women and children, and a lot of single women as well,” Pourciau said. “Those people need temporary housing and assistance getting out on their own. Many of them can work and the kids are in school. They just need help getting safe.” 

Scott Holstein

Many nights, The Shelter was filled beyond capacity with people seeking a place to sleep. This photo is from 2007.

Another category of homelessness are the youth who have either been kicked out of their house or have run away, or even kids aging out of foster care, which is a pretty small number in our community, Pourciau said.

“We have one agency in town that is the primary provider for those young people, and that’s Capital City Youth Services. They have both emergency shelter and transitional housing, and they go out and find kids in the woods and on the streets as well,” she said. “Usually for youth who can’t be reunited with their families (there’s) transitional housing, (and) long-term housing programs that can help them learn life skills. And then they’re able to finish their education and get jobs, and they’ll be fine.”

Yet another category consist of families with children who are homeless because of job loss, a family breakup such as divorce, or an extreme health condition and no insurance. In short, the trouble that these people have gone through has stressed their financial stability and caused them to lose their apartments or their utilities. Pourciau guesses that 50 percent of the people who are homeless in our community fall under this category.

“For those folks, the best way to help them is to help them get a job if possible and provide rent deposits, utility deposits, and kind of help them with rent for a couple of months, and then they’re on their own. That model is called rapid re-housing,” she said.

Homeless veterans are another category.

“There’s lots of resources available right now, mainly through the federal government, to help veterans, so our community is doing a really good job of addressing veterans’ needs,” Pourciau said. “We’ve housed probably 300 veterans in the last year. Maybe 400.”

More can be done, but it all comes back to having the money to do it with.

“I know it’s a cliché, but it really is about the funding,” she said. “We have people who want to do the work, we know who the people are that need the help, and we know what programs work for different types of people. But without the money, we can’t put all that stuff together. Which is the frustrating part to those of us who work in that area. It’s like we know what to do … but can’t do it enough. We need something that can be scaled up to the level of homelessness that we have.”

All these various programs are funded by three main sources. There are private/community donations, the United Way and the Community Human Services Partnership, or CHSP. The CHSP consists of the city of Tallahassee, Leon County and the United Way of the Big Bend. They pool their money and give it out in grants to nonprofit organizations, Pourciau said.

“So it’s a combination of private and public money. Some organizations exist exclusively on private donations, others are primarily grant-funded, and there are lots in between,” she said.

The recession was another factor in the increase in homelessness, but it took time for those numbers to show up on paper because people held on as long as they could before the bottom dropped out under them.

“But it’s gotten better,” Pourciau said. “For instance, with our Hope Community residents, they’re able to find jobs much more quickly now than they were a couple of years ago. “We know from experience that people are having an easier time finding jobs, although they still don’t pay well.”


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