A home welcomes Zephyrhills’ impoverished

There’s an open-door policy to whomever walks in the Samaritan Project of Zephyrhills Inc., with economic struggles weighing them down.

The organization has become a fixture in Zephyrhills to combat the continuing cycle of homelessness.

Established in 2008, the agency was in response to those already living on the streets, or on the verge.

The Samaritan Project works to get its name out to the community in helping the homeless. Pedro Molina and Roxxy Geisenheimer advocate on behalf of the organization at Zephyr Park. (Courtesy of the Samaritan Project of Zephyrhills Inc.)

Roxxy Geisenheimer is the executive director for the Samaritan Project and has been with the agency for the past two years.

“This organization was founded to stop the domino effect that happens when people experience traumas, tragedies or unforeseen circumstances,” she explained.

The director added that Zephyrhills saw a need for a “one-stop shop resource center.”

In turn, its office has a donation pantry where the less fortunate can come to collect food boxes, hygienic products and comb through racks of clothing.

The Samaritan Project staff also sits down with individuals to assess their situation and refer them to the proper resources.

Some may need things as simple as identification cards or bus passes, while others’ needs are more urgent.

In pinpointing the necessary resources, the agency works with the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County, among other organizations, in what is known as the Continuum of Care.

Under this program, local institutions collaborate in collecting data to ultimately house the homeless and take preventive measures.

One such partnership the Samaritan Project has is with United Way of Pasco County.

Together they have established an agreement with Duke Energy to help clientele with past due electric bills.

Homeless veterans and their loved ones are referred to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families to help get on track to stable housing.

And, while the Samaritan Project has a psychologist on staff, there are those whose mental instability prevents them from properly articulating their needs.

In these cases, they may be sent for treatment to such places as Premier Community HealthCare, BayCare Behavioral Health or the North Tampa Behavioral Health Hospital.

Agency staff is also ready to drive people to their needed destinations, if necessary.

The collaborations go both ways as the Samaritan Project also receives referrals from local hospitals, law enforcement and churches, Geisenheimer said.

“We all try to share information and resources the best we can, and wrap around people who are struggling,” she added.

Job counselors help to get some on the road to employment, and disability attorneys advocate for those who cannot work.

Guardians ad Litem also support parents in the courtroom to reunite with their children when living conditions begin to improve.

However, not everyone who walks through the agency’s door comes from a cycle of poverty.

Samaritan Project staff members often go outdoors to befriend the homeless and help to get them on their feet. From left, front: Karen Greene, Carol Greene and Roxxy Geisenheimer; and, back: Paul Bathrick and Lawrence Vickstrom are several of the friendly faces found at the agency’s office.

“We work with people who, at one point, did very well for themselves,” the director said.

She noted that currently employed individuals, such as electricians, health care workers and teachers, also find themselves homeless.

From 2013 to 2017, the average household income in Zephyrhills was only an estimated $35,100 and the current poverty rate stands at 20 percent (of the population), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While some with jobs make a steady income, it may not be enough to keep them in their home – or even put down a security deposit.

In turn, the agency offers the Rent/Utility Assistance Program.

This initiative grants funds to help pay the rent or mortgage short-term, while trying to find a long-term solution.

“We try to help them figure out ‘how do we prevent this from being a problem next month,’” Geisenheimer explained.

With the Emergency Cold Weather Shelter program, staff will be on call 24 hours a day.

When the temperature drops below a certain level, displaced individuals are taken to safe shelters, whether a gymnasium or a hotel room.

To support its efforts, several grants are given from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Florida Department of Children and Families.

However, most of the agency’s funding comes from community donations, like businesses, churches or individuals, the director said.

Although Geisenheimer has seen various demographics seek help, she said she’s most surprised by the amount of elderly people who are homeless.

She recalled once helping a wheelchair-bound woman in her 80s make the transition from the woods to being placed in an assisted living facility.

That too, is what staff will do once closing up the office – street outreach. The agency sets out to find those in the woods or in abandoned buildings.

And, while they offer assistance to get people off the street, they will help set up tents for those not quite ready to leave the outdoors.

This is understandable to staff that volunteer, as they were, at one point, in the position as those they serve.

Geisenheimer, herself, was struggling years ago to find a stable home when she was pregnant.

She stated that staff members offer others not sympathy but empathy, noting:

“They know when they walk through the door, that they’re not being judged.”

What’s more, the agency does not operate in a plaza or off a main road, but within a residential area.

Its office is a renovated, two-bedroom house, which adds to a welcoming atmosphere, the director said.

She said that those who are displaced should remain hopeful that their situation is temporary.

And, by stepping through the front door of the office, that hope can become a reality.

For additional information or help, call (813) 810-8670, or visit Facebook.com/SamaritanProjectZephyrhills.

Published May 29, 2019

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