TAMPA — A new front opened Wednesday in the local fight against homelessness and it does not include another shelter.
Instead, the Cypress Landing apartments will provide 23 chronically homeless men and women with permanent homes — furnished apartments indistinguishable from one-bedrooms that rent nearby for about $500 a month. There are palm trees in the courtyard, microwave ovens in the kitchens, linens on the beds and towels in the bathrooms.
But for the tenants, the one-year leases will be covered by vouchers from the Tampa Housing Authority. There's also an on-site manager who can connect them 24 hours a day with a nurse or therapist so they stay on their medications, out of jail and away from the emergency room.
"If it looks like someone's having a difficult time, we sort of have a second set of eyes to make sure everybody's safe and doing well," said Jenine LaCoe, director of outpatient services for Mental Health Care of Tampa, a nonprofit partner in the project.
Cypress Landing, on N 15th Street just west of University Mall, is the pilot project of a new private-public partnership called Steps Forward.
The group's approach is known as "housing first" — provide homeless adults with a roof over their heads, plus life-skills counseling to keep them stable and healthy enough to apply for jobs, veterans benefits or other assistance.
"This is a place of great hope," said Tod Leiweke, the co-chairman of Steps Forward and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose foundation helped furnish the apartments.
Steps Forward got its start two years ago after Tampa Tank Inc. chief executive officer Calvin Reed told then-Mayor Pam Iorio about a good homeless assistance facility he saw in Texas.
In response, Iorio and County Administrator Mike Merrill organized a study group of a few local officials and business executives, including Reed, Leiweke and insurer M.E. Wilson Co. president Guy King.
"Housing first is a revolutionary idea, and it wasn't where we started," Leiweke said. "Our idea was, 'Let's have an early success, let's find people who are ready to not be homeless.' "
That changed about a year ago, after the committee met with Tod Lipka, who runs a housing-first program in Santa Monica, Calif. Leiweke said Lipka told the committee that unless it dealt with the most chronic cases of homelessness, "you're kicking the can down the road."
Federal officials define a chronically homeless person as someone with a disabling condition who has been homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. It's a description that fits about 700 people in Hillsborough County.
Last spring, the County Commission voted to spend $2.1 million in federal community development funds so Mental Health Care of Tampa could buy and rehabilitate the old Villa Seville apartment complex.
The county also is contributing $317,000 for counseling and support services. Mental Health Care has said it will use five criteria of vulnerability to help pick the residents: severity of mental illness, length of time on the street, health problems, substance abuse issues and history of trauma.
The first half-dozen or so residents are expected to move in within the week. Advocates say once the needs for housing and safety are met, chronically homeless people often back off coping mechanisms like substance abuse.
The founders of Steps Forward say the housing first approach promises to save money by preventing arrests, uninsured medical costs and relapses into substance abuse or mental illness.
Seattle documented savings of $2,500 a person, adding up to $4 million during the first year. In Denver, emergency room visits dropped 34 percent and jail time decreased 76 percent.
In Los Angeles, a study last year found it cost less to move 50 of the city's most vulnerable, chronically homeless adults into permanent housing than to leave them on skid row. The program cost about $3 million from 2008 to 2010, but saved an estimated $3.28 million in avoided costs.
Here, advocates hope that reducing costs on the chronically homeless will leave more money to help families in need, children and veterans.
Steps Forward has a goal of creating 500 such apartments in five years. The group says that's an achievable goal because the housing first model doesn't concentrate lots of homeless people in a big shelter, but creates scattered properties that are more easily integrated into the surrounding community.
Dan Jurman, the executive director of the University Area Community Development Corp., said he's more comfortable with a housing first project than he would be with a big, traditional homeless shelter.
The difference, Jurman said, is the data that shows housing first has a higher rate of success and saves money.
As for others in the university area, "with some people it has traction, with other people it's a wait-and-see," he said. "But that's okay. I'm okay with wait and see."