Beth Davalos raising awareness of homeless children and youth through media.
Thanks to two appearances this year on the long-running news magazine 60 Minutes on CBS, Florida social worker Beth Davalos has become one of the most visible advocates of an often overlooked and invisible population in the United States — homeless children and youth.
“Media is a very powerful source for change,” said Davalos, who is coordinator for the Seminole County Public Schools’ Families in Transition Program, which helps homeless children in economically struggling central Florida. “I’m going to continue using it to increase awareness.”
Central Florida has been particularly hard hit by the nationwide housing slump. As a result, the number of homeless children and families has risen sharply. There were almost 1,700 homeless children in Seminole County in 2011, up 30 percent from the previous year, she said.
60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley decided to use Seminole County to spotlight the national problem of homeless children in two reports that aired in March and November. Pelley followed some of the clients Davalos and a team of 16 social workers were trying to help.
These families included unemployed carpenter Tom Metzger and his children — Arielle, 15, and Austin, 13. The Metzgers were living in a van, and Tom Metzger shuttled his children to gas stations in the morning to get ready for school and to local libraries so they could study and use computers.
Thanks in part to her appearance on 60 Minutes, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth asked Davalos if she could help them find children to testify before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing, and Community Opportunity on Dec. 15.
The House is considering legislation from Rep. Judy Biggert, R.-Ill., that would expand the federal definition of homeless so all homeless children can qualify for HUD housing and supportive services.
Davalos accompanied teen-ager Destiny Raynor, who told lawmakers how her homeless family had to eat at a gas station because there was a microwave to heat up food. The Metzgers also came to the hearing, Davalos said.
“I would probably put it in the top five days of the best days of my life,” Davalos said of the hearing. “It was amazing to go up and support the voices being heard that are directly impacted by homelessness. The committee members listened and they looked emotionally impacted.”
Davalos and her team are continuing to work with their community to get help for the homeless, and the community is continuing to rally around the cause.
For instance, students in Seminole County have launched drives to gather food, toiletries, clothing and other items for the homeless; Sonny’s Franchise, Starbucks and other companies are becoming corporate sponsors to help the homeless; and Stetson University and the University of Central Florida has asked the Seminole County Public Schools’ Families in Transition Program to help them evaluate families and the FIT program in an effort to build capacity and use homeless assistance resources more effectively.
“Really people are engaging — it’s unbelievable,” Davalos said. “We have got to keep it going. Homelessness can’t be the issue of the month.”