2/21/2019 For one Lakeland family: Homeless no more
By Eric Pera
LAKELAND – Skating by on Social Security benefits for an autistic son,
Charlene Cooper was a heartbeat away from homelessness.
A single mother to three girls as well, Cooper somehow managed to make ends
meet. She said her son’s behavior required her full attention, preventing her
from keeping stable employment.
The Lakeland family’s troubles spiraled out of control a few weeks before
Thanksgiving after being evicted from their home for what Cooper said was her
12-year-old son’s unpredictable and destructive actions.
After several nights in a motel, their money exhausted, the family found shelter
at the Salvation Army.
Because of recent changes in the way federal dollars are used to treat
homelessness, the Coopers did not stay long in the shelter. Within a few months,
they moved into a home of their own, with all expenses paid through a
government Continuum of Care grant.
″(This worked) much better than I imagined,” said Cooper, 36, standing in the
driveway of her three-bedroom, two-bath home that includes a yard for her
children to play. “I expected to be in shelter at least six months.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development annually doles out
COC awards to communities across the nation to alleviate homelessness, a
process that has been altered in recent years to prioritize programs that target
homeless individuals whose chronic circumstances are the result of disabilities,
mental illness or substance abuse.
The new federal initiative known as Housing First places individuals in this
category at the head of the line for services, with permanent housing a primary
concern, followed by counseling and treatments designed to cure the underlying
As beneficiaries of Housing First, the Coopers join a growing number of families
and individuals who are being fast-tracked into permanent housing rather than
languishing in shelters, where room often is scarce.
To help guard against losing her home again, Cooper’s autistic son has been
placed in a youth camp in the Florida Panhandle, where he’s receiving long-term
therapy in hopes of improving his behavior.
She also is in line to receive subsidized day care for her 4-year-old daughter, Sara
Monica, allowing Cooper the freedom to continue her newfound job at a local
“She’s a great success story,” said Deborah Cozzetti, a housing specialist with
Talbot House Ministries assigned to work with Cooper. “First of all she’s
working, and she’s motivated. She’s a good mom and she’s got the motivation to
turn around and get her family stable again.”
Polk’s 2019 COC funding of $1.6 million is divided among four agencies. In
addition to Talbot House, they include the Agency for Community Treatment
Services Inc.; Tri-County Human Services Inc.; and Wilson House.
A portion of the funds are allotted to the Homeless Coalition of Polk County,
which oversees the COC grant.
In Cooper’s case, the grant enables Talbot House to provide ongoing case
management and counseling. It won’t pay the rent forever, but the money gives
struggling families a fighting chance, said Megan Hawkes, director of
development for Talbot House.
Approximately 1,377 individuals and families are registered with the homeless
coalition and waiting for decent, affordable housing, which is in short supply in
Polk, Hawkes said. “Our mission is to help people find homes.”
Cooper counts her ability to jump ahead of the pack both a miracle and a
blessing, thanks to the intervention services from Salvation Army and Talbot
“2018 was a very rough year,” she said. “I’m hoping and praying that in 2019 we’ll
be able to turn a corner.”
Eric Pera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7528.