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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Hillsborough homeless count drops nearly 6 percent from 2015

The total number of homeless people in Hillsborough County dropped nearly 6 percent to 1,817 since last year, according to the county’s annual count of individuals and families on the street or in shelters.

To do the count, the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative had 330 volunteers fan out across the county, covering streets, alleys, spaces under bridges, wooded campsites and soup kitchens between 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25.

Of those counted, 62 percent were men or boys, 38 percent women or girls. Nineteen percent were younger than 18, while 7 percent were older than 60. Nearly a third said they had been homeless for at least a year, and more than half said they were homeless because they lacked a job or had financial problems.

“If I had the money, I’d buy a house," 30-year-old Jon Lloyd told a reporter on the day of the count. "But at my income level now, I’m better off buying a toothbrush and shampoo and washing up over there,” pointing to a spigot near Church Park in Town 'N' Country.

The count also found that:

• 181 of the homeless counted were veterans. That’s down 42 percent from the 2015 count, though the number could be higher because 627 of those counted refused to answer the question.

• 247 were chronically homeless, down 19 percent. Someone is considered chronically homeless if he or she has a disabling condition and has been homeless for at least a year or has been homeless four or more times in a three-year period.

• 280 suffered from mental illness, down 4 percent.

• 335 had problems with substance abuse, up 64 percent.

• 134 were victims of domestic violence, down 38 percent.

• 25 had HIV or AIDS, down nearly 32 percent.

Breaking down the total, 769 had no shelter, 631 had some sort of emergency shelter, and 407 were in transitional housing.

But the number in transitional housing — short-term accommodations that keep at-risk individuals and families off the street while efforts are made to find them a permanent home — is expected to fall by more than 200. That’s because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has decided not to renew $800,000 that had been going to Alpha House, the Salvation Army and the Spring for transitional housing.

In response to the loss of the funding, homeless initiative CEO Antoinette Hayes Triplett has told her board members that HUD has shifted its emphasis toward supporting programs that put people in permanent housing along with providing them with social services. And officials note that HUD has shifted money in similar ways in Miami-Dade, Indiana and New York.

In response, administrators with the Salvation Army and Alpha House have questioned whether the homeless initiative turned in a flawed grant application — the group has acknowledged there was a coding error regarding Alpha House in the application — that contributed to the loss of funding.

Still, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, HUD clearly is moving away from transitional housing programs that are “outdated and inefficient.”

“What HUD is, in essence, telling them is, ‘We’re only going to fund those that are doing it differently,” Buckhorn said in an interview before the homeless count results were made public last week.

One alternative that Hillsborough County and Tampa officials have increasingly turned to is known as “housing first.” Housing first targets chronically homeless individuals with permanent housing backed up by social services and counseling. The approach is considered to be cost-efficient, freeing up money for other homeless populations in the long run, because it reduces the number of times that chronically homeless people end up in hospital emergency rooms or jail — both of which are expensive, temporary and less-than-ideal ways to deal with recurring problems.

The County Commission put more than $2.4 million into Hillsborough’s first housing first project, the 23-unit Cypress Landing apartments, which opened near University Mall in January 2013.

Since then, the city and county put each put $250,000 into an effort by the nonprofit Housing Steps Forward to rehabilitate the Southland Apartments between Gandy Boulevard and MacDill Air Force Base. The public subsidies supported the conversion of 16 of the complex’s 45 units into housing-first units for homeless veterans.

“That’s how you actually help people, because you wrap them with social services,” Buckhorn said. “Merely feeding them and allowing them to sleep on the floor and then pushing them out the next day without dealing with all the other stuff in their lives — the drugs and the alcohol and the medical illness — doesn’t help. It doesn’t solve anybody’s problems. So I think HUD is saying loud and clear to those providers, either change your model, go to a housing first-type model or we’re not going to fund you.”

And Buckhorn said the city feels the same way, so if it’s going to put its money into homeless initiatives, they’ll be housing first projects.

This spring, the city put out a request for proposals to use about $400,000 in federal funds to build or rehabilitate apartments for chronically homeless tenants. It got one response, from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Catholic Charities focuses on the chronically homeless as a primary population, executive director Mark Dufva. It has land next to Mercy House on N Florida Avenue that it is looking at developing in stages. Its proposal to the city was for five efficiency units, and it is still evaluating its plans, Dufva said.

But just because there was only one proposal doesn't mean the city will accept it as submitted. A city review committee Monday gave Catholic Charities' proposal low marks for a lack of detail on its support service partners, service plan, development plan and construction plan.

"I think we might have to put it back out," city housing and community development manager Vanessa McCleary told review committee members.

[Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2016 4:26pm]


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