It's tough enough to break the cycle of homelessness without government making it worse. But that has been the case in Hillsborough County, which has forced some homeless families to pay back their public housing aid and left them without the money to move into stable housing. This shortsighted approach reflects the county's indifference to seriously addressing housing issues. If Hillsborough shifts the responsibility for housing the homeless to private charities, it will have to provide the money necessary to reverse this sorry record.
The latest disclosure by the Tampa Bay Times' Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia shows the county's narrow-mindedness in managing a program that was supposed to provide the homeless with a gateway to self-sufficiency. In exchange for temporary housing assistance, many who qualified for federal disability aid were forced to give back thousands of dollars as repayment.
In February 2012, Sam Cruz Jr. was told his 4-year-old son's bad hearing entitled him to monthly disability payments from the federal government. Yet instead of allowing the family to keep the money, the county took most of Cruz's initial lump sum of $2,700. That meant Cruz could not afford to leave the program and rent his own place. Within a year, the family was homeless again.
There's nothing wrong with requiring recipients of public aid who come into money to give something back. That money could help others on waiting lists who find themselves in similar desperate straits. But a payback system must be reasonable and timed so that recipients are not so broke they are forced to return for the same public assistance. The goal here must be to break the cycle of homelessness, not perpetuate it.
Before receiving aid, clients sign contracts promising to repay the money if federal help comes through, and the process of garnishing federal disability payments leaves local officials with no discretion over who and how much they target to recover. But the problem in Hillsborough is that the homeless have so few options for temporary housing assistance that they are resigned to these predatory conditions. Only Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties claw back public money for housing, according to a Social Security Administration document. Many counties turn their homeless programs over to nonprofits, which cannot legally garnish federal disability funds. And Palm Beach, at least, places the homeless into appropriate settings.
Hillsborough announced months ago that it intends to shift these services to nonprofit charities beginning in January. It must ensure that the nonprofits are adequately funded; charities may not be able to recoup money from aid recipients, but there is nothing to prevent them from quitting as providers altogether. The county should provide a steady funding stream and help the nonprofits move this population from temporary into stable housing. Keeping the homeless running through cycles of temporary housing does little; the county should create a mechanism for them to make the transition to self-sufficiency. If Hillsborough continues to ignore these fundamental weaknesses, it will drive the nonprofits away from participating. The county is still the responsible party, and it should start this relationship on the right foot by committing to do its part for the homeless.