Amid last year's anguished debate about whether Tampa should ban panhandling, another question often loomed: should local officials do more to create a large shelter for homeless men, women and families?
Several City Council members said yes and pushed Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration to look for a suitable property.
But now, after more than a year of study, a group led by private-sector executives is suggesting another alternative with the potential for countywide impact.
The group is teaming up with county officials and a local nonprofit organization on an initiative aimed at reducing Hillsborough County's population of nearly 700 chronically homeless people. The approach, known as "housing first," is used in other cities nationwide.
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.
The idea of housing first is to provide these most vulnerable homeless individuals with a place to live — and not in a shelter — backed up by focused social services to help them stabilize their lives.
The group hopes to open a pilot program in late October or early November.
In May, the County Commission voted to spend $2.1 million in federal community development funds so that Mental Health Care of Tampa can buy and rehabilitate the Villa Seville, a 24-unit apartment complex on N 15th Street, a few blocks west of University Mall.
The county also is kicking in $317,000 for counseling and support services.
Mental Health Care, a non-profit with 700 employees, plans to find residents for Villa Seville by looking at five criteria of vulnerability: severity of mental illness, length of time on the street, health problems, substance abuse issues and history of trauma.
Mental Health Care has provided aid to the homeless for two decades, so identifying 24 candidates is not expected to be a problem.
"My goodness, I could probably locate 100," said Jenine LaCoe, Mental Health Care's director of outpatient services.
Those chosen will move into a furnished apartment at Villa Seville, where they'll have the ability to talk to a nurse or therapist 24 hours a day. Once the needs for housing and safety are met, people often back off coping mechanisms like substance abuse, LaCoe said.
In cities such as Denver, Norfolk, Va., and Wichita, Kan., the combination of housing and coordinated social services has helped homeless people stay healthy enough to apply for jobs, veterans benefits or other assistance.
"We like the idea that it worked, and it worked immediately to get them off the street and in permanent housing," said M.E. Wilson Company president Guy King, who co-chairs the group with Tampa Bay Lightning chief executive officer Tod Leiweke.
The group's participants include LaCoe, Buckhorn, Tampa Tank chief executive officer Calvin Reed, County Commissioner Sandra Murman, School Board chairwoman Candy Olson and County Administrator Mike Merrill, plus representatives of the University of South Florida.
At this point, the group doesn't have a formal name, but has been known as the homeless initiative group and the "Housing First" Committee to Solve Chronic Homelessness. It got its start after Reed saw a good homeless assistance project in Texas and talked to then-Mayor Pam Iorio about the problem. Iorio and Merrill called King, Leiweke and others to ask if they would study homelessness in Hillsborough. Meetings began in January 2011.
The group didn't settle on housing first right away, nor did it zero in on the chronically homeless until nearly a year into its effort. That's when members met with the president of a nonprofit program that uses this model in Santa Monica, Calif.
His advice: Start small, build on success and focus on the chronically homeless.
One reason the group likes the housing first approach is that it can save money in the long run by helping prevent relapses into substance abuse, mental illness or other problems that send homeless people to jail or the emergency room.
In June, a California study concluded that it has cost less to move 50 of the most vulnerable, chronically homeless adults into permanent housing than it would have just to leave them on the streets of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. Project 50, which was sponsored by the County of Los Angeles, cost about $3 million from 2008 to 2010, but it saved an estimated $3.28 million in avoided costs.
King said another advantage is that the housing first model doesn't require concentrating a lot of homeless people in a big shelter that could need several acres of land and encounter fierce neighborhood opposition.
Instead, the project's clients can live in smaller properties scattered throughout the county, something that supporters think will help integrate them into the community.
"It was a good fit for us," Murman said. Chronically homeless individuals are the hardest to serve, she said, but addressing their problems pays off in the long run because they consume a disproportionately large share of resources available to address homelessness.
"They've got mental health issues," she said. "They've got substance abuse. If you don't have a case manager for these individuals it's going to fail, and that's the beauty of this project. It really offers a comprehensive plan for these individuals to learn to live on their own."
Once chronically homeless individuals are off the street and stabilized, leaders of the initiative hope that a larger share of the aid available can go to the rest of Hillsborough County's homeless population of nearly 17,800, more than 7,000 of whom live on the street, in shelters or in places not meant for human habitation.
Murman said the group has three goals: reducing homelessness, creating at least 500 units of housing for the chronically homeless over five years and establishing a public-private partnership.
While the money for the pilot project came from the county, much of the work was donated. Leiweke said developer Bowen Arnold and attorney Kami Corbett donated probably six figures' worth of professional services for the Villa Seville project.
Going forward, Leiweke said one of the most logical ways the private sector could support the growth of the initiative is by providing capital. But first it needs to work on a small scale.
"We're going to measure," Leiweke said, "so we can go back to people and tell them, 'This is what we've done, and now we need your help.' "