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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

Tampa-based nonprofit sees more families facing homelessness for the first time

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Gabriella Paul
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WUSF Public Media
Dawning Family Services, formerly known as the Alpha House of Tampa, has been serving homeless families since 1981.

Dawning Family Services is receiving more calls from homeless families in Tampa. In March, Chemetria Munn was among them.

Chemetria “Mimi” Munn never thought she would be homeless.

As a single mom with three kids, Munn said it’s often tricky to make ends meet. But they had faced hard situations before and came out OK.

“I’m very proactive and very preventative,” she said. “So I never thought that I would be homeless — especially not for 60 days.”

In January, Munn came home to a 15-day eviction notice taped to her door.

“YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED that pursuant to Section 83.57, Florida Statutes your month-to-month tenancy…is being TERMINATED,” the notice reads.

In Florida, landlords hold the right to terminate a month-to-month lease without cause. Though, Munn would later successfully argue in court that she hadn’t signed an agreement with her landlord since 2018.

In February, Munn and her three kids —Shahnez, Zayvion and Serenity — were ordered to vacate the premises by the end of the month. In the two months it took to wipe the wrongful eviction from her record and find a new place to live, Munn and her family were homeless.

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Gabriella Paul
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WUSF Public Media
Chemetria Munn, 37, stands on the steps of the entrance to Dawning Family Services, located on North Armenia Avenue.

Situations like Munn’s are becoming more common in the greater Tampa Bay region, said Mona Duffus, CEO of Dawning Family Services.

The Tampa-based nonprofit is a low-barrier housing shelter for families, meaning the program offers immediate assistance without requiring additional qualifications. It also offers help with finding permanent housing and other services like employment support and homelessness prevention.

Duffus says their offices are averaging 200 calls a month from families who are primarily in need of emergency shelter. Last fiscal year, Duffus said their offices received 1,200 calls and emails from families facing homelessness. So far this year, they have received over 1,700.

“Historically, families have always had a harder time when it comes to housing stability,” she said. “They end up having worse outcomes. They end up being homeless longer. And it’s simply the math–they can’t afford it.”

She said this mirrors point-in-time data collected earlier this year that shows aging residents and families are among the most vulnerable to homelessness in Hillsborough County right now.

After Munn and her family were evicted, she bought a storage unit—only packing what she and the kids could fit in the car. To avoid living on the street or moving into a shelter, they hopped between hotels for 60 days.

The family of four shared one room with two queen beds, staying one week at a time and checking out on Saturdays because it was cheaper than paying for the daily rate.

Munn said she bought microwave dinners or ordered fast food for the family to eat. Months later, she says, her kids can’t stand to eat Little Caesar's pizza or a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

She had stockpiled a few thousand dollars to keep them afloat until she could find another place. But by mid-March, funds were running low and affordable three-bedroom apartments were hard to find. Even if she applied, she said, landlords would deny her in 24 hours for the eviction that was still on her record.

When she wasn’t applying to apartments, Munn said she studied to expand her state licensing as an insurance agent. It was something that kept her mind busy — a relief from the depression and anxiety she also faced.

Looking back, Munn said she got through because of her support system. She’s grateful to her younger brother; her grandma, who raised her; and her boyfriend, who is now her fiancé.

But more than anyone, she thanks Dawning Family Services.

She remembers the night she called them, after trying the Salvation Army and Metropolitan Ministries.

“I explained to them my situation — how my landlord filed an eviction, me and my kids are now staying in a hotel and I can’t afford the hotel,” she said.

Within a week, she was assigned a case manager. And 48 hours later, Munn got the news that Dawning Family Services would cover her family's hotel costs in April.

“I cried that night,” Munn said. “God answered my prayers — I’m about to be released.”

She was right. By the first week of May, Munn and her family moved into their new apartment.

In one month’s time, her case manager reached out to 15 complexes, negotiated with potential landlords during the application process, visited properties of interest and conducted inspections to ensure spaces were livable.

Munn said the financial and practical support offered by Dawning Family Services allowed her to give her children a home again.

Best of all, she said, her oldest daughter didn’t have to graduate high school while homeless.

“We moved in at the beginning of May. She graduated at the end of May,” she said. “She didn’t go to prom, homeless. She didn’t go to grad night, homeless.”

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.