Hillsborough is finally coming to terms with having the most homeless of any county in the state. A group of public officials and business leaders is looking at ways to serve the chronically homeless by providing them with temporary housing and a host of other services, from job training to substance abuse counseling. This comprehensive approach is the only one that works, and the county must demonstrate a sustained commitment to turn around this pressing problem.
Two years after torpedoing an offer by Catholic Charities to build a tent city for the homeless, the county is exploring a public-private venture that could easily be the most ambitious of its kind in Hillsborough's history. The idea is to combine housing with social services that already exist, thereby giving people the sort of stable and healthy environment they need to maintain a home, hold down a job and otherwise function in society.
The effort is in its early stages, and it's too soon to determine if the initiative will gain speed, much less make a serious dent in the county's homeless problem. But it's bringing together major players in the community — from city, county and school officials to business leaders — like never before. Hillsborough's homeless population of 10,000 is twice that of other major counties like Miami-Dade or Pinellas. Yet no local official has seriously addressed this issue since then-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio tried to start a discussion last decade. The tent city concept was not ideal, but it forced the county, which has legal responsibility for caring for the homeless, to deal with the growing problem.
Having government and the private sector as partners is the right approach at the outset. Homelessness is a visible civic problem that impacts not only those on the street, but police, neighborhoods, social services, businesses, hospitals and the schools. By working together, the public and private sectors can share the costs and deal more effectively with the root causes that have driven so many from their homes, jobs and families.
Commissioners Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe should join Sandra Murman in pushing the county to take a forceful lead. The county wiped its hands of the problem after killing the tent city, and it has an obligation not to spurn help from the private sector a second time around.