Transportation and affordable family housing are among the priorities of advocates who are updating a pledge they made five years ago to end Pinellas County homelessness by 2016.
Homeless Leadership Network leaders say they made big gains during the first five years of that plan.
That includes upping the number of emergency beds for individuals and former jail inmates through financial contributions to shelters. The shelters include Pinellas Safe Harbor, which opened in January to divert homeless offenders from the jail, and Pinellas Hope, a tent city that allows clients to graduate to apartment housing.
However, the Homeless Leadership Network, which represents all 24 Pinellas cities and the county, says it has a lot more to do.
Recent meetings have focused on retooling the plan in an effort to attain unmet goals, such as amending or creating policy that supports new funding sources.
They're also creating new goals that reflect the harsh realities of the economy. An example would be building or creating space in existing shelters to accept the influx of children living on the streets with parents who have been laid off or lost homes to foreclosure.
"The (initial) plan was written toward getting assistance in place," said HLN staff director Sarah Snyder. "What they really want to focus on in the next five years is outcomes: How many people do we really get out of instability and into stable housing? Another one is have we been able to reduce recidivism — the number of families who come back into homelessness?"
Pinellas County's plan was one of 212 adopted nationwide as part of a White House initiative to stamp out chronic homelessness. The plan sought to combat homelessness through measures such as:
• Outreach to the homeless in streets, woods and elsewhere.
• Increased affordable housing and shelters, education, early intervention and access to resources and better-paying jobs.
• Establishing a system of oversight.
• Collective lobbying for new policies, practices and funding.
• Improved coordination among governments, social service agencies and other players.
The original plan "was never looked at as completely eradicating homelessness in all of Pinellas County in 10 years. That's just not a realistic thing," said Ken Welch, a county commissioner and HLN chairman.
"But you can do it for that person or family and then move to the next person," he said. "You're looking to eliminate homelessness one person at a time."
The plan initially focused on helping single homeless people, "because that was the most visible part of the (homeless) population five years ago," Welch said.
But numbers released Friday from a Jan. 23 point-in-time count found 2,379 of the 5,887 people living on the streets that night were children under 18.
That's a significant jump from two years ago, when children accounted for only 1,944 of 6,235 homeless people surveyed during the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless' one-day count.
"It's just many more than we thought five years ago," Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said.
Snyder said service providers are in place, but officials still need to create an organized system of caseworkers and resources that quickly connect folks with all the services they need.
Ideally, HLN wants to centralize services for the homeless into one-stop shops, where people can access a variety of services, either in a single building or virtually, via a website accessed from a library computer.
That ties into the need for transportation. Snyder said HLN is working with the Juvenile Welfare Board and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to secure an alternative bus system that perhaps uses vans to shuttle the homeless to soup kitchens, medical facilities and social service agencies, which often are spread around the county.
"If you're homeless, you don't necessarily need to go to the mall," she said. "You need to go to Bay Pines or to Social Security or to the Health Department."
However, officials point out that funding is key. Due to the poor economy, they've temporarily abandoned their push for a food or beverage tax to support homeless services, but they said the idea might come up again in the future.
"There are a lot of good ideas," Welch said. "But being able to maintain it with fewer dollars means we have to prioritize so we're funding programs that have the best chance of success."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.