Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

Tampa looks to county for help on homeless services

TAMPA — When it comes to providing services to the homeless, Mayor Bob Buckhorn and all the members of the City Council are not yet on the same page.

Last week, the council voted to explore tighter restrictions on panhandling in downtown and Ybor City, as well as on sleeping in city parks and on sidewalks.

But while she voted for restrictions supported by Buckhorn's administration, council member Yvonne Yolie Capin criticized the mayor's record on the issue.

Officials say courts won't allow the city to enforce new bans on sleeping in public unless there is shelter space available for the homeless, and Capin said Buckhorn hasn't shown leadership.

"Everyone refers to him as a cheerleader, and in this we need a quarterback," she said before the vote. "He needs to step up and challenge the County Commission … and I've not heard that from him."

Buckhorn said later it's "very easy to suggest that I do this or do that" but he said he's been working with County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Commissioner Sandra Murman.

"Ultimately, the bulk of the human services are housed in the county, and I don't control that," he said. "We are doing the best we can with the resources and the manpower that we have.

"Part of that is giving police officers the tools they need to do the job, which is what the City Council can and should do."

The exchange is an example of the political friction produced by Tampa's strong-mayor form of government, where the mayor runs City Hall and the council's powers are limited.

It's also evidence the mayor and council members have moved in different directions on this issue over the past two years.

Buckhorn was elected after promising he would craft an ordinance in his first week as mayor to eliminate panhandling on major arterial and collector streets in Tampa.

He didn't do that, and instead the City Council, after multiple tries and a year of anguished debate, passed an ordinance to ban most roadside solicitations six days a week. (Newspaper sales are allowed every day, and panhandling and charity drives are allowed on Sundays.)

In the months after, the council frequently asked the mayor's staff for updates on what the city was doing to find a site for a "comprehensive homeless assistance center."

But the administration was looking at a different kind of project.

First under Mayor Pam Iorio, and then under Buckhorn, city officials were working with a group of county and school officials, homeless advocates and business executives who began looking for a better way to tackle problems related to homelessness in January 2011.

Two years after it began, the group settled on an approach known as "housing first" and opened its first facility: Cypress Landing, with 23 rent-free apartments for chronically homeless individuals.

The complex has an on-site manager who can connect tenants 24 hours a day with a nurse or therapist to help them stay on their medications, out of jail and away from the emergency room.

The goal is to stabilize the lives of the few chronically homeless men and women who use a disproportionate share of public resources for the homeless. That, in turn, is expected to leave more money for other needy groups.

Cypress Landing is a few blocks north of the city limits, near University Mall. Principal public funding for the project came from the County Commission: $2.1 million to buy and rehabilitate the apartments, plus another $317,000 for counseling.

Still, Capin felt like the council was kept in the dark about Cypress Landing. "Basically, it ain't none of your business," she said. "That's what we were told."

But working with the housing-first partnership is not all the city has done, said Thomas Snelling, Tampa's director of planning and development services.

Among other things, the city has provided $500,000 to Metropolitan Ministries, which is building an expanded shelter called MiraclePlace. When finished, it will double the charity's housing capacity and serve 200 families and 450 children a year.

That's good, council member Mary Mulhern said, but "we haven't created any new beds for the population that we're saying we don't want on the streets."

"Maybe it's time to revisit that," she said. "Maybe it's time for the city to start talking about other options like they do in Pinellas," where the county government and 12 cities came together to create Safe Harbor, which houses about 300 chronically homeless people per night.

"Unfortunately," council member Mike Suarez said, "our hands are tied in lots of ways."

Suarez recalled sitting in a meeting about a year and a half ago with Buckhorn and a consultant for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Noting that the city didn't control the jail and didn't control social services, the consultant suggested to the Tampa officials that there was not much they could do.

For Suarez, too, that leaves the county. When the community needed to pass a tax to fund indigent health care, he noted, it was the county that led the effort.

So could another tax be the answer?

Council members were intrigued to hear from Maria Barcus, the new chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition, about Miami-Dade County, where she worked before.

There, a 1 percent tax on food and beverages sold in the county's larger restaurants generates about $12 million a year for the government-created Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

Barcus, however, suggested Tampa is not ready for that.

"In Hillsborough County and in Tampa, we have to do a better job of coordinating and using the resources we have before we can ask for additional resources, and we have to have a clear plan with what to do with those resources," she said.

Nor does Buckhorn support the idea.

"I am not going to advocate the county raise a tax or taxes for this," he said. "I don't think that's the solution."

But the last words in this discussion won't be spoken for months, if not years. That means the council and mayor will get a lot more chances to find common ground, starting on June 27, when the council sees the draft ordinances on the proposed panhandling restrictions.

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