Hillsborough's Sheriff David Gee has made an offer county officials shouldn't refuse. Gee wants to house the homeless in a work-release center that had been doing little more than collecting dust. There are many details to sort out before the facility could begin operating, but Gee's proposal represents the kind of broad partnership the county needs to address the dearth of housing for homeless. County Administrator Mike Merrill should move quickly to ready the property for new occupants, secure a competent nonprofit to run it and provide social services to make sure the homeless get the help they need.
Problems with the county's homeless program came to light last year after the Tampa Bay Times published a series of articles detailing the poor living conditions paid for on the taxpayers' dime. County employees were sending people to live in housing rife with insects, walls smeared with excrement and high crime. The county shut down its Homeless Recovery program on Dec. 31, pledging to turn over operations to nonprofits that specialize in working with this population.
Last month, county commissioners took the first step in revamping the program. They smartly authorized a $1.18 million contract with the nonprofit Metropolitan Ministries to provide temporary shelter for homeless families and women.
Now the work-release center, near the Orient Road Jail in east Hillsborough, provides another option for temporary housing. It has 175 beds, a cafeteria, easy access to bus services and office space that could house support services. Merrill says he is likely to accept Gee's offer. He also should embrace overtures from Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden, who has said his staff could provide intake services at shelters and secure Florida birth certificates and ID cards for the homeless at no cost. Separately, Belden said he would work to raise money to support homeless services in Hillsborough.
Partnerships work, as evidenced by success stories like Pinellas County's Safe Harbor, a 470-bed temporary shelter in Largo run by the sheriff's office and funded by the county and several cities. Hillsborough should take note and follow suit.
The shortage of appropriate, temporary housing for the homeless is a huge problem that won't be solved overnight. Even with nonprofits in charge in Hillsborough, the lack of affordable housing looms large. But finally county officials are taking action — even if some of the most innovative ideas seem to be coming to Merrill and his staff instead of from them. They need to keep going and continue to put significant money and oversight behind promises to help the homeless find solutions both temporary and permanent.