Hillsborough County's system for serving the homeless has failed the needy and taxpayers alike, so it makes sense to consider whether private nonprofits could do a better job. But finding a better way forward cannot be a ruse by the county to wash its hands of the problem. The county alone is legally responsible for serving this population. And any solution must include more than temporary housing if the county hopes to break the cycle of homelessness.
Hillsborough's housing program is in shambles. In a series of reports, the Tampa Bay Times has chronicled how the county has used taxpayer money to house low-income residents in squalid, crime-ridden properties. Officials estimated last month that about 200 people receiving publicly subsidized housing aid were living in unfit conditions. Emergency inspections revealed that dozens of units failed even basic housing codes, and some landlords have decided to leave the program rather than bring their properties into compliance.
County commissioners are exploring whether to hand the job off to the private sector. That could offer several benefits. Area nonprofits such as Metropolitan Ministries have established track records in serving the homeless. Their history and reputation in the community enable them to attract private fundraising that could stretch the existing public housing budget. The nonprofits' narrower mission might ensure that the housing program does not get lost in a larger bureaucracy. The risk is a private sector program could be less transparent and accountable.
County commissioners also need to acknowledge that any solution involves finding the right people. Hillsborough's program failed not because it was county-run but because the operation was ignored. Going forward, the housing program must require that all units pass county health and safety codes. Conflict-of-interest rules must keep family, business partners and favored landlords from using their ties to win public business. And if the nonprofits take over, the county still needs strong oversight to enforce compliance with the county contracts.
Commissioners also need to be clear about the scope of the problem they are addressing. The challenge is not merely to expand the mission of the nonprofits, but to improve Hillsborough's safety net to provide the homeless with a bridge to self-sufficiency. That requires a stronger housing program, but also wraparound services such as mental health, job assistance and life-skills training. The county will need to elevate its sights and follow through with plans for both temporary shelter and more permanent affordable housing.