Four city commissioners — a majority — committed to stepping up Lakeland’s efforts to reduce homelessness during Tuesday night’s Nehemiah Action, an annual rally held by a coalition of local churches that unite around social action issues.

PEACE — Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment — declared Tuesday’s event a success after hearing the city commissioners’ pledges. The organization identifies community problems and researches ways to effect change. It involves local government for solutions, such as with Tuesday night’s focus on student homelessness and affordable housing.

Its annual event attracted 850 participants, who either watched virtually or sat in their cars and listened via their radios at Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre. Participants in their cars were warned to refrain from honking or booing as commissioners stated their yay or nay on proposed affordable housing actions. 

Mayor Bill Mutz, along with Commissioners Stephanie Madden, Sara McCarley and Phillip Walker, took turns standing with Christine Goding, PEACE Housing Committee co-chair, to agree on several items.

Mayor Bill Mutz listens to the negotiated actions from PEACE Housing Committee Co-chair Christine Goding before saying yes.

They said yes to increase the amount of city funds dedicated to affordable housing to a minimum of $750,000 this year. They also agreed to advocate for city staff to prioritize multi-bedroom housing units available for families making less than $30,000 a year or 50% area median income.

They also agreed to track and mark housing units that serve families making 50% area median income or less, which serves to advance a 2019 Lakeland city commitment to offer 500 units for homeless families by 2023.  

As part of the presentations, PEACE board member LaMont Brewer shared an update on homelessness in the area.

“Overall, in 2019, there were almost 3,400 reported homeless children going to school in Polk County when PEACE started its effort on affordable housing,” he said.

But only two-thirds of them are being reported, which is misrepresenting the trajectory.  

“Those who track these numbers tell us that the decline is because there are fewer homeless children,” he said. “But the pandemic has made it harder to identify children because they have not been in school.”

He took a moment to celebrate the progress of Lakeland and its commissioners and mayor, citing units of housing that have already been developed or are in the works. But he cautioned that there is a deeper question, that of the quantity of affordable housing for those with school-aged children.

After agreeing to the PEACE action, Commissioner Madden told the audience that it’s “sobering” to consider her promise as a new commissioner in 2019.

“I knew that I alone did not have the power to make things happen,” she said. “Since that very first meeting, I have seen for myself a resolve among my city commission colleagues and the city of Lakeland staff to address this issue head on and find outside-of-the-box strategies.”

It grieves the community as a whole when students are experiencing homelessness, said Mayor Bill Mutz. The city is pained by the weight of what is required to get the job done, he said, but he encourages everyone to do what they can to “help shoulder some of that burden.”

As part of its presentations, PEACE brought in two Santa Fe Catholic High School students who shared their experiences with homelessness.

One was Sean Marley, 16, who talked about his nomadic-seeming existence and extensive periods without food.

“I remember my sister found this old ramen packet,” he said. “She was so excited that she finally had something to eat that she ate it raw.”

Because he has had little control in his life, he admitted that being unsettled is something he’s accustomed to. Yet, he said he didn’t feel like he deserved the stage because he’s seen others experience much worse.

“No one deserves the feeling of hunger and alienation,” he said. “We all deserve the right to a home.”

Angelena Peturis, 16, talked about what she’s been through as a homeless student.

Santa Fe Catholic High School student Angelena Peturis talks about her experiences with homelessness.

She moved to Lakeland in 2018 with her family of seven. She spoke of sleeping in the car while going to school during the day. She’s a dual-enrolled student taking AP courses and recognized early that homelessness is a detriment to academic success.

“But finding places that are willing to let us stay has been very difficult,” she said.

She is living out of an Airbnb where she shares a room with three or four other people.

She told the audience that she used to ask herself questions about her future career. The answer, she knew, was somewhere along the lines of what she was interested in doing. “Now I ask myself what will make me the most money,” she said.

“In the blink of an eye, you’re now like the gum on the bottom of a man’s shoe,” she read from a poem she wrote. “It can happen to anyone, they say. Don’t laugh; it may be you one day. Oh, that’s ridiculous, right? It would never get to be that way.”

Earlier in the day, Peturis said her goal is to prevent any child from having to live like she has had to. Her efforts include spreading awareness that some of our neighbors are living in poverty and poor housing situations.

“Angelena just ripped at my heart this evening,” McCarley said after declaring her commitment to the actions. “Her poem is so true.”

It’s important, she said, that young people who go to school with those experiencing homelessness understand that some of their peers are struggling.

She said no families and no students should have to experience homelessness.

“We should not have any kids who have to be traumatized by moving from bed to bed and house to house throughout their academic career,” McCarley said to audience. “We are so happy as a city and as a commission to support all of you and this effort. We want to work together and continue to collaborate.”

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