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  • Writer's pictureJayne Lisbeth

The Invisible Among Us Update:

A Conversation with Mona Duffus, CEO of Dawning Family Services

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why

Santa Claus is coming to town….He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” 1.

As children, who among us does not remember this admonishment to behave. This popular ‘30s song is hard to miss. It is blasted over the airwaves from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The message is clear. If you’re naughty Santa won’t bring you gifts. You’ll get a lump of coal in your stocking. This is a real threat to children, an effective behavior management tactic in the weeks before Santa arrives.

Children of homeless families receive few, if any gifts. They surmise they’ve been bad, naughty. Covid 19, unemployment and homelessness is the coal in the stockings of an increasing number of families throughout Tampa and across our country. They’ve not done something “bad”. They are homeless.

This is one of the insights provided to me in my Zoom meeting with Mona Duffus, CEO of Dawning Family Services, a local Tampa organization which helps the homeless and needy. Having read “The Invisible Among Us'' Mona reached out to me to share her work and that of the sixteen staff members of DFS. Their mission is to “Incorporate programs and case management to create a personalized plan for each family, striving to provide stability to the most unstable lives in our community.” Services include: “Safe and Secure shelter, Housing search programs, prevention and diversion services, Rapid Re-Housing assistance (RRH) and post-shelter support to ensure a family’s continued housing stability.”

I learned a great deal from my conversation with Mona that I had not gleaned through research. I realized the overwhelming care, kindness and humanity of the sixteen DFS staff members. Helping others in creative and sensitive ways is at the forefront of those working to make the ‘invisible’ in our society ‘visible’ by providing them not only with new shelter, but new lives and hope for their future. Christmas wishes for the homeless is a roof over their heads, a hot meal or warm clothes. The thrust into homelessness is a situation over which parents have little control, causing lack of self-esteem for both children and adults. A sense of value and ownership over their lives is lost. Those who remain homeless find themselves in an endless cycle of despair. They are invisible. This is not the Christmas or holiday season they wished for.

What exactly do these staff and volunteer members do? Homelessness does not fit in a box.” Mona told me. “Every person’s needs are different.” An assigned case worker accesses families exactly where they are, on the streets, in the woods, in vacant lots, in cars. Case workers access the needs and the eligibility of each family. Solutions are sought towards permanent shelter. The barriers for inclusion in the programs are low, but they do exist with a specific criteria to enter the program and continue to be part of DFS services. Another lifeline of DFS is Emergency RRH, Rapid Re-Housing. This is a fast paced effort provided to those who need short term shelter, a bridge between homelessness and permanent shelter.

Once a family or individual is accepted into the DFS community they are followed by their case worker. Often, the best way to assist others is through word of mouth.” Stories, experiences, needs of the community are shared. After accessing their needs, there are a number of physical, emotional and creative ways in which DFS strives to meet every person’s needs and goals. These include tutors to help individuals pass their GED or to gain specific employment certification. Emergency utility and rental deposits can be provided through DFS and the pool of Federal, HUD and State of Florida funding programs. All these efforts are aimed towards helping a struggling family get back on their feet. Whatever their needs, their case worker builds a pathway towards a new life. DFS has one goal: Serving families and leading them towards self-sufficiency and the all important goal of breaking the cycle of homelessness.

When a person is evicted their lifelines are destroyed along with their stability. They have no answers to their questions. These are the hidden challenges of eviction. There are legal obstacles to address and overcome. Is the eviction legal? What is their recourse to remain in their home? How can they travel through the maze of federal restrictions to discover their eligibility to keep eviction and homelessness, at bay? These are impossible legal avenues to navigate without expensive legal assistance, which DFS strives to provide through contributions by our local legal community.

There are other, subtle but important ways to launch an individual or family. “A fresh haircut is a very big deal. says Mona. “We train individuals for their job interview, provide a new outfit and sometimes even help with car repair for transportation. But if their hair doesn’t add to their appearance their self-confidence is shattered.”

The pride in Mona's voice was obvious as she described the new Housing Community Services Center Dawning Family Services is now undertaking. The new DFS building has been renovated, located at 6718 N. Armenia Ave, Tampa, 33604. The first phase of the DFS Community Services Center is planned to open in early 2021. The completed Community Services Center will be a drop-in center providing homeless prevention/diversion programs, training, community referrals, a technology lab for job-seeking and skills training, as well as a personal hygiene closet, food pantry, diaper depot, laundromat and shower facility. Partner agencies will have a place to deliver respective services onsite and a more efficient approach to providing community services referrals. When all construction is completed on the planned buildings there will be also be 240 plus beds in the emergency shelter. Currently, a capital campaign is underway to solicit contributions through the Tampa corporate and business community, as well as the ongoing quest for fund-raising to support all the work DFS provides to the homeless in our community. For more information and for donating to DFS, visit

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The Surgeons Cut, a Netflix series, depicts surgeons throughout the world in all areas of expertise, saving lives. They relish their work providing life-saving measures to any family whose children or family members would not survive were it not for their medical intervention. One pediatric cardiac surgeon, Dr. Shetty, performs miraculous surgeries in-utero, on babies whose hearts are “as big as my thumbnail.” His message is repeated over and over again by other surgeons throughout the world: “The most wonderful surgeries I ever perform are for those who can’t pay me. That is what I am here for.” Dr. Shetty’s words resonate, light up, like a neon sign in my brain. As with the homeless, these patients are unable to pay for their lifelines. Dr. Shetty, Dawning Family Services and all the other selfless organizations perform surgeries on individual lives, be it a new heart or a new home. They are the Santa Clauses of our world.

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Following is a list of volunteer/funding opportunities compiled by DFS which you can share with your community, churches, temples, schools and neighborhoods:

Holiday Gift Cards in small amounts: Purchase through Amazon, Publix or any gift card outlets. Shelter Packets: Gently used household items, from pots and pans to dishes, silverware, towels and linens for the furnishing of new shelters. Volunteering: any services, from tutoring, legal aid to haircuts and car repair. Household items: purchased through Amazon and online businesses can also be donated and shipped/dropped off at Dawning Family Services, 6718 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa, FL 33604.

1. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town: Leo Feist, Inc., Songwriter(s)J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. 1934

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