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Residents in the Tampa region brace for Hurricane Idalia's arrival


Hurricane Idalia has arrived in Florida as a Category 4 storm with wind speeds of 130 miles an hour. Forecasters are expecting a storm surge in parts of the state's west coast. That's going to lead to widespread flooding. So how is the homeless population dealing with that? For answers, we turn now to Monika Alesnik of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas, which assists unhoused people in the county. That includes Saint Petersburg and Clearwater. Monika, what does the storm look like where you are right now?

MONIKA ALESNIK: Hi. Good morning. So we are still getting winds and rain, but what's most concerning right now is we are starting to see some flooding of streets. The northbound lane of one of our major bridges is currently closed. So we're still feeling the effects, but certainly not the effects that we were expecting. So we're very grateful for that.

MARTÍNEZ: For people that are unhoused in your area, have they been taken somewhere else, or what's - what have you seen there?

ALESNIK: Absolutely. So we've seen - our staff, as well as other staff members from other providers, as soon as we see the storm start to come, we move into action and we start evacuating some of the shelters - the homeless shelters - that are actually in lower levels and evacuations, A. We immediately work with Pinellas County to ensure that those are evacuated. They provide busing to do that. But we certainly have a large number of unsheltered that our providers are actively in advance of storm until it is not safe, actually, are out into the community getting people to shelters and providing information on safe places to go to weather the storm.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. What a delicate balance, right? You want to keep your people safe, but you also want to try and save as many people, too.

ALESNIK: Absolutely. It is very dangerous. And so we - I have had many staff who have said, can I go out? And I said, well, we are closed. Please be safe. But we are in the business of protecting people, and compassion is what drives so many of my staff and staff of others within our community. But it is a very delicate balance. So we send lots of emails, update our social media consistently and work with our county and municipalities to ensure that we are constantly getting the information out there to those who trust us.

MARTÍNEZ: What is the degree of homelessness in Pinellas County?

ALESNIK: Well, sadly, Pinellas County has the second-highest rate of homeless veterans in our country. And according to our most recent point-in-time count, which is a one-time count - it's a snapshot of homelessness - in the most recent school year, we had 3,768 children under the age of 18, with data provided to us from the school district, that were homeless. We have 125 families on a shelter waitlist, which is quite troublesome. These are families sleeping in their streets. We have a growing number of homeless people due to the economy as well as the housing conditions here in Pinellas County and Tampa Bay area.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Monika, quickly - just a few seconds here - how close are you to a point where you just have to abandon trying to help anyone that's out there right now?

ALESNIK: Never. We are definitely not at that place. I know the bridges to the barrier islands have been closed, but there are still areas out there that people will be safe.


ALESNIK: And as soon as the wind clears a little, I know our staff will be out there, as are others, checking - ensuring our community members are safe.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Monika Alesnik of the Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas County. Thank you very much.

ALESNIK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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