Through our listening process the past few years, we have heard numerous stories relating to problems that youth in our community are struggling with. We've heard stories from parents who can't afford after school activities for their children, and they are worried that their children will end up hanging out with the wrong crowd while being unsupervised after school. We've heard from parents whose children need drug treatment but can't afford it. Other families shared their concerns for bullying and misbehavior in their child's school. After hearing hundreds of stories like these, FAST congregations overwhelmingly voted to work on Youth Concerns this year.
We are still early in our research process, so we are currently working to identify specific problems that youth are having. We have narrowed down our research to two categories: Concerns in schools, and concerns outside of school.
For the concerns outside of school, we will be researching more about problems in the community such as youth stealing cars or being unsupervised after school. For the concerns inside school, we will be following up with the School District on their promises to implement restorative practices in all Pinellas County Schools.
More information will be updated as we have more research meetings and narrow down the scope of this committee. For updated information on what meetings are coming up, please contact your congregation's justice ministry team leader or call the FAST office.
Pinellas County is in a housing crisis. Working families are living in hotel rooms or living in their cars because they can’t afford the high cost of housing in Pinellas County. During our listening process, dozens of our members shared that they are often paying so much on their housing that they have to choose between eating or paying for their medications. No one should ever have to make that kind of decision.
According to Shimberg Center data, 82,000 families in our county are paying more than half of their income on housing. Nearly all of those families have an income that is less than $47,350 (80% of Area Median Income). Meanwhile, only 4% of households making over $47,350 (80% of AMI) are paying more than half of their income on housing.
There are over 16,000 families on the wait list for HUD’s affordable housing and the list is closed so no other families can access the assistance.
Through research we have learned that there is not enough affordable housing available for families that need it the most. Non-profit developers such as Catholic Charities, Boley Centers, and Family Promise say that their biggest hurdle to getting a family or individual into stable housing is the scarcity of affordable housing options in Pinellas County.
Last year, we asked our County Commissioners to spend 4.15% of the overall Penny for Pinellas tax money on affordable housing. This tax is a 1% sales tax for the whole county and is projected to raise $2 billion from 2020-2030. Although a majority of county commissioners agree to spend 4.15% of the total funds on affordable housing, as of now, this money is not clearly allocated. The written plan states that 8.3% of the funds will be spent on affordable housing AND economic development. We are concerned this means that all of the 8.3% could technically be spent on economic development and none on affordable housing.
Based on this concern, this year at the 2018 Nehemiah Action, we asked our county commission to pass an ordinance that clearly states that 4.15% will be spend on affordable housing. Additionally, we asked that the ordinance clearly states that this money should be spent mainly on families making $47,000 or less (this is 80% of Area Median Income). Faced with 2,500 people, 4 of our County Commissioners show up and said YES! Commissioner Morroni, who could not attend for health reasons, wrote a letter beforehand confirming his support.
Additionally, last year at the Action we asked the St. Petersburg City Council members to use a percentage of the city's Penny tax money on affordable housing. Though initially resistant, we were able to change their minds and get them to commit to use $15 million for affordable housing! The $15 million is officially in the city's budget for Penny for Pinellas and was approved unanimously by all city council members in the summer of 2017. We are looking forward to following up with our city council members to discuss details on how this money will be spent.
Reducing Youth Arrests
Problem: Florida continues to arrest too many youth for non-serious offenses. In 2012 Florida arrested 78,195 youth and 73,371 were for non-violent offenses. Florida arrests more of our youth than California or Texas and we arrest double the percentage of our youth in comparison to New York. Over the last five years Florida arrested 4,839 children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old!.
This is a serious problem because when children are arrested they get criminal records that keep them from getting jobs and college scholarships later in life. Children who make simple mistakes are being labeled as criminals and their opportunities are being limited at a young age.
Solution: The state has created a program called Civil Citations through which local law enforcement can divert youth to community-based programs without giving them criminal records. Youth who go through such programs face consequences for their actions. They do community service, make restitution to victims and the community and complete whatever interventions are deemed necessary to change their behavior. Youth in civil citations program are three times less likely to get into trouble again as youth who are arrested for the same infractions. Not only is diverting youth to community-based programs more effective, it also saves money. Over $4,115 per case is saved just on processing fees.
In Pinellas County
Three years ago at our Nehemiah Action we asked the Mayor of St. Petersburg to prioritize reducing youth arrests when he hired a new police chief. The Mayor followed through on his commitment. Currently, the City of St. Petersburg diverts 98% of eligible youth to our civil citation program. This means that 311 children in St. Petersburg were able to avoid lifelong arrest records during the last year alone. In addition to using the civil citation program, Chief Holloway started the new “Second Chance” Program to give children in St. Petersburg immediate consequences for their offenses without giving them criminal records and without having to transport them to the Juvenile Assessment Center in Largo.
Two years ago at our Nehemiah Action, we asked Chief Slaughter of Clearwater to follow St. Petersburg's lead in using the county's Arrest Avoidance program. At the time, only 68% of eligible children in Clearwater were diverted. Chief Slaughter has followed through on his commitment, and in the three months following our Nehemiah Action he brought up Clearwater's usage rate to 84%.
Three years ago we joined with nine other Justice Ministry Organizations in Florida and got a bill filed to allow law enforcement to offer civil citations to youth who commit a second or third misdemeanor. The Florida Catholic Conference, The Florida United Methodist Conference, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida and 11th Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church all took positions in support of our ordinance. Our bill passed the legislature with only 3 votes against it and on May 21st it was signed into law by the Governor. We had 22 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors of our bill. From Pinellas, Representative Rouson led the way as prime co-sponsor and Representatives Ahern, Latvala and Peters signed on to co-sponsor the bill.
However, there is still more work to do this year. Even though Pinellas County has a great civil citations/JAAP program, many counties in Florida are not making use of this program. In Polk and Sarasota Counties 0% of eligible youth were diverted. In Hillsborough, kids get arrested for things which Pinellas County youth would not get arrested for. There were over 9,000 youth in the state of Florida who were eligible for civil citations last year who did not receive one and got arrested instead. These children now have an arrest record that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. We are continuing to work on the problem this year in order to ensure that all youth throughout Florida get equal access to civil citation and the opportunity to avoid life-long arrest records for minor offenses.
 FBI Uniform Crime reports http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/69tabledatadecpdf
 FL Department of Juvenile Justice Report. http://public.tableausoftware.com/views/DPROFILE/AGE?:embed=y&:display_count=yes#1
 Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, and other officials from throughout the state, confirmed that even though juvenile records are often said to have been expunged or sealed they are still accessible to future employers. He said this was unavoidable due to modern technology.