Every year when their grants expire, homeless aid groups across Florida scramble to apply for new ones, hoping to piece together enough funding to keep their doors open.
That "hodgepodge" system of funding nonprofits and homeless shelters is not working, according to state Sen. Jack Latvala, who is planning to propose changes next year. Lawmakers need to create an "organized approach," he said, and not leave it entirely up to individual counties and cities to decide whether to spend taxpayer money to help the homeless.
"It needs to be addressed as a statewide situation and there needs to be some kind of stable funding source and I'm going to be working on that next year," he said.
Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he is only beginning to explore where he might get the money and how much would be needed.
One source he is eyeing is the documentary stamp tax, which gives the state a small cut of every real estate transaction and promissory note in Florida. For years, money from the tax was set aside to pay for affordable housing for people making less than the state's median income. But after the economy collapsed, lawmakers raided the fund, using its millions to fill holes in the state's budget.
"But now we're in the opposite situation," Latvala said, referring to Florida's slowly improving economy. "We ought to take advantage of that."
Latvala said he is not considering modeling his proposal on Miami-Dade and Broward's answer to homelessness. Both counties have imposed sales taxes on restaurant meals to pay for shelters and programs.
Whatever Latvala proposes should include housing for the homeless, as well as funding for aid groups and the 28 statewide agencies that oversee them, said Maria Barcus, CEO of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Groups "need to be focused on serving the homeless rather than spending a lot of time chasing money, which is what you have to do if you're being funding by little grants from different places," she said.
State Rep. Kathleen Peters, a South Pasadena Republican who was elected last year, would sponsor the bill in the House.
Peters said she and Latvala discussed putting forward a bill last year, but the state's economy seemed too shaky, making support for their proposal uncertain. At the end of the 2013 session, the Legislature voted, again, to use the stamp tax money to cover other expenses instead of spending it on low-income housing.
In May, when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $1.3 million to build housing for homeless families in Pasco County, Latvala called her, Peters said, and proposed they try for funding in 2014.
Pasco has only one 20-bed homeless shelter and it doesn't take in families, according to Eugene Williams, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County.
"There's no place to go," he said. When people lose their jobs and their homes, they travel to shelters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Last year, 161 people from Pasco stayed in Safe Harbor, the largest homeless shelter in Pinellas and one that relies heavily on the county for funding.
"The taxpayers in Pinellas are paying a disproportionate amount because we have taken the initiative, primarily Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, of doing something about homelessness," Latvala said.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.