Nearly three years after the Pasco County adopted a decade-long plan to end homelessness, volunteers will head out next week to visit privately owned vacant lots, public spaces and emergency shelters to try to find out if the initial efforts have been successful.
The one-day count of residents living without a permanent roof over their head is key to securing federal assistance for housing efforts. Since 2009, the biennial survey has revealed a approximately 4,500 people living on the streets or in shelters across the county, a figure that does not include thousands more living with friends or relatives because they have no permanent home of their own.
Two years ago, the county's homeless tally of nearly 1 percent of the population was the highest per capita rate in Florida, a stunning statistic that left Pasco officials wondering about the veracity of the surveys in other counties. This year, officials are hopeful there will be an incremental decline, but they also know that panhandling bans in neighboring counties have pushed homeless people to new locations.
Pasco adopted its own six-day-a-week ban on roadside soliciting, a maneuver that simply pushed the homeless population from a daytime perch on street medians without attempting to offer other assistance. Likewise, a commission majority killed a homeless shelter's operations in east Pasco. And a year earlier, the board had trouble coming to a consensus on applying for a $1.4 million federal homeless assistance grant. (The county eventually applied, but did not receive the aid.)
The ambivalence by the commission undermines other advances:
• Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, Pasco Commissioner Pat Mulieri and state Rep. Mike Fasano have worked to bring a mobile medical unit to Pasco to offer health-care treatment to the homeless. In December, the unit treated 92 people and administered 122 flu shots. Late last week, the unit ran out of flu shots before Florida Hospital donated 250 additional doses of the vaccine.
• The ROPE Center accepted a donated bus to begin transporting people at its Hudson shelter to and from employment sites.
• Metropolitan Ministries announced plans to build a 10- to 12-unit apartment building for families needing emergency shelter.
• In March, Pasco County will accept applications for $400,000 worth of home mortgage down payment assistance from the state housing assistance program SHIP. It is intended to help up to 50 low- to moderate-income families acquire their own homes. The money comes from previously approved loans that have been repaid.
• After years of missing out on substantial federal aid, the Homeless Coalition of Pasco County qualified in consecutive years for the federal NOFA funding, a national program requiring a so-called continuum of care – essentially a strategic plan for housing and providing other services for those in need.
And, notably, Eugene Williams, the county employee who coordinates the coalition, will retire from local government shortly and plans to serve as executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County. It essentially removes the county as lead agency for the coalition and will allow the coalition to act autonomously.
Having the county take over as the lead agency was necessary several years ago after a disorganized coalition failed to even apply for the NOFA dollars. Now, putting the director on the coalition's payroll should eliminate potential conflicts and allow the agency to better advocate for the homeless on matters before the commission.
Mulieri's support, in particular, has been key to the cause. Other commissioners should follow her lead.
Rev. Jim Campbell, coalition president, says there's a need for more involvement from political and community leaders. "Everyone of those individuals (who is involved) is doing something special, but there's a lot more stuff that needs to be done. We just can't cover it all.''