Few problems seem as ever-present for growing urban areas as homelessness. But the most recent annual count shows that Hillsborough County's homeless population fell over the past year. It's only a snapshot, and whether this starts a positive new trend remains to be seen. The county, the city of Tampa and the private sector need to continue to work together to find more affordable and safe housing options.
The February count by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative found roughly 1,550 people living either in shelters or on the street, a drop of 15 percent from 2016. This marks a big dent in numbers that had stayed above 1,900 for years, and coming in a recovering economy, it gives confidence to homeless advocates who are looking to cut these numbers significantly by 2022.
The Hillsborough program credits a change in strategy. The push now is to find permanent homes, not transitional housing, and to serve the homeless with wraparound services — health care, counseling, employment assistance — in order to stabilize their environment and move them to self-sufficiency.
"Housing first" is a long-range strategy that addresses many of the root causes of homelessness. It is a preferred approach for many, including the Trump administration. But there still is a need for temporary housing to help some bridge a crisis. With the Trump administration proposing to cut $6 billion from urban aid in the coming year — including many programs that fund housing, health care, veterans services and other social assistance — it will fall to cities and states to be more creative in how they spend public money and partner with the private sector to find stable and affordable housing.
The numbers have turned in the right direction. Hillsborough should pursue its ambitious plan to expand permanent housing. But it also needs to recognize that shelters play a critical role and will continue to in a growing county where social services and jobs are widely dispersed.