Hillsborough County is taking the right approach as it looks to farm out its housing program to local nonprofits. The move could mean better housing and a clearer path to self-sufficiency for thousands of people who need temporary shelter. But the county should be prepared to spend more money to get the nonprofits up to speed, add housing inventory and provide the social services that can help people lead an independent life.
The new arrangement comes after a series of Tampa Bay Times reports that show the county placed hundreds of people into unsafe and decrepit housing units in recent years. In response, the county has asked nonprofits to take over the job of supplying tax-funded vouchers for housing and other assistance to those in need. Handing this task to area nonprofits that have a history of providing the homeless with housing and support services makes sense. So does leveraging public dollars with the resources of charitable groups.
The trick for the county will be maintaining oversight after the nonprofits take over. The county started off on the right foot by including some key requirements in the contract it is pitching to the nonprofits. The terms of the deal require that the nonprofits have an established presence, experience in handling a shelter program and the ability to administer support services. Those capabilities should ensure that the nonprofits will be doing more than issuing vouchers. The county also wants to track the outcomes for clients placed in the program.
Hillsborough should shift more money from the program's $1.6 million annual budget into services. Most of the financing now, $1 million, goes to staff salary and benefits. The nonprofits should make better use of that money. The county also needs to help the nonprofits increase their capacity to house and serve the homeless, either by securing state and federal grants for new apartments or by working with the private sector to create appropriate short-term housing.
Combining bridge housing that offers 90 days of shelter with social services to get people on their feet is a more promising strategy to stabilize these lives than merely writing a check to a landlord. But the county needs to assist the nonprofits during and after the transition. The purpose of this new approach is not to shift the county's obligation onto the private sector, but to find a more effective way of delivering emergency aid.