Pinellas lawmakers get $3.8 million into state budget for homeless assistance programs

Last year, state Sen. Jack Latvala watched with chagrin as Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a host of homeless services projects, including $1.3 million for a transitional family shelter in Pasco County.

Now the Clearwater Republican is waiting for Scott to sign a bill that revives the so-called challenge grants that umbrella groups can use to pay for services ranging from temporary housing to mental health counseling and job skills training.

The goal is to create what Latvala called a "statewide playing field" to get money into the hands of groups such as the Homeless Leadership Board of Pinellas County that have boots-on-the-ground experience in their communities. He came up with the idea after Scott vetoed the Pasco shelter, a Metropolitan Ministries facility in Holiday that would ease the strain on Pinellas resources.

"I thought this would provide a process and criteria to have projects evaluated and would be a little more equitable way of doing it," Latvala said. "It's not just up to who can get a project in the budget."

House Bill 979, co-sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Peters of St. Petersburg, dedicates $3.8 million in next year's budget for grants of up to $500,000. The bill garnered unanimous support in both chambers, but it fell short of creating the dedicated funding source that Latvala and Peters had sought.

For years, the Legislature set aside about $5.6 million annually from a state trust fund specifically for homeless assistance programs. That practice stopped about five years ago when lawmakers started raiding the fund to plug holes in the budget.

The Senate version would have required 4 percent of the trust fund to be designated annually for challenge grants. Peters removed that provision at the suggestion of House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Latvala said he went along with the change to ensure the bill's survival and will try again next year to secure dedicated funding.

The bill also designates $200,000 for the state Department of Economic Opportunity to provide assistance and training to community-based groups.

"That's critical so every coalition and their partners are executing programming that we know will be effective," Peters said. "We really wanted accountability and success."

Another possible funding source is welcome news, said Rhonda Abbott, executive director of the Pinellas homeless board. The board is one of 28 lead organizations in the state that coordinate homeless services with local providers and have developed 10-year plans to provide a holistic approach to homelessness. That means offering emergency shelter, transitional housing and drug, alcohol and mental health counseling, plus job training.

As the Great Recession slogged on and forced some people out onto the street, funding for assistance programs dried up, Abbott said.

"People lost their jobs and lost their homes, and we just don't have the resources for them," Abbott said.

Latvala said he is hopeful the board can secure grant dollars to help Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri cover the cost of running the Safe Harbor shelter so that he can spend more money on law enforcement operations.

The Rev. Dan Campbell, who oversees Metropolitan Ministries in Pasco, said he is praying that Scott doesn't veto the $1 million in next year's budget for the Holiday shelter.

Either way, the challenge grants could come in handy, Campbell said. The 24-unit project could cost as much as $3 million to build, plus annual operating expenses. Pasco does not have a family shelter and has one shelter for women and their children.

"The goal is to move them to self-sufficiency, not just give stuff to them," Campbell said. "That transition is complicated and expensive, but what's more expensive is doing nothing."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Pinellas lawmakers get $3.8 million into state budget for homeless assistance programs 05/18/14 [Last modified: Sunday, May 18, 2014 8:56pm]

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