On any given day, more than 4,400 people are homeless in Pasco County and that doesn't even count the nearly 1,800 kids in Pasco's public schools who live in somebody else's home. The staggering numbers released this week by the Homeless Coalition of Pasco showed the number of children living without a permanent address more than doubled over the past three years. Likewise, the number of people considered chronically homeless — homeless for at least one year —is up nearly 40 percent to close to 1,600 people since 2008 with only 175 of those living in shelters.
The numbers could have been worse. Pasco County prevented 900 families from being homeless through the use of federal stimulus dollars in the rapid rehousing program. But that is of little solace to a needy population that expanded as the economy contracted.
In total, nearly 8,000 people are homeless — using the state definition — that includes people living in the woods, plus children and families crashing in somebody else's house, living in motels, awaiting foster care or sleeping in the car. The data is from a homeless count conducted Jan. 26, and demonstrates that despite good-faith efforts, this is a growing problem amid shrinking resources.
Perhaps it's time for bolder thinking. Instead of allowing a detention facility to be mothballed, the county could investigate retrofitting the former West Pasco jail into a homeless shelter. Retiring Sheriff Bob White has acknowledged no need for the jail and suggested last year that the commission sell it as office space and use the proceeds to supplement his personnel budget. Rather than White's failed "cops over concrete'' campaign, the county could consider the notion of shelter over shuttered.
The Safe Harbor in Pinellas could serve as a model. There, a vacant warehouse once renovated as a jail annex, opened in January with the ambition to eventually serve as many as 500 people. The idea is to provide temporary housing and social services help to vagrants who might otherwise end up in jail for a petty crime as well as providing a place to stay for recently released inmates who need assistance as they transition back into society. It's a worthy goal with a fiscal pay-off. Keeping people out of jail saves expenses for law enforcement, criminal justice and health care.
Clearly, this won't be inexpensive at the outset and revenue from beyond Pasco County will be required to make such a transformation a reality. But slipping a few bucks to the street corner panhandler is hardly the way to manage a growing homeless population.