Hillsborough County is finally tackling homelessness with the seriousness it deserves.
The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County is leading a broad effort to fundamentally retool how local governments and private agencies serve the homeless population. The goal is to break down the silo mentality so that providers can address the problem in a comprehensive way — from better directing the scarce pot of housing funds to figuring out how to provide wraparound services to enable many without a permanent home to function more normally in society.
This collaborative approach is a sharp departure from the past. Then-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio tried to put homelessness on the radar nearly a decade ago, but county conservatives blocked any attempt to find a dedicated revenue stream for local housing programs. Hillsborough County commissioners killed a tent city plan by Catholic Charities in 2009 and never got serious again until last year. But there is a new spirit of cooperation between the city and county. And the effort has expanded its involvement to include representatives from the School Board, the University of South Florida and leading local businesses, such as Tampa Bay Lightning boss Tod Leiweke.
The project is still in the early stages, and the coalition is in flux itself as it searches for a new chief executive. But this is the first serious effort to replace a piecemeal approach with a more effective strategy. The group is exploring ways to serve the chronically homeless as well as looking longer-term to help people navigate around life-changing circumstances that could leave a family on the street. This is a much-overdue civic effort for a county with the largest homeless population in the state. At nearly 8,000, Hillsborough has more than twice the number of large counties, such as Miami-Dade, Broward or Pinellas. The Diocese of St. Petersburg, which oversees the Roman Catholic Church in Hillsborough, moved the ball by proposing the tent city. It should remain open to playing a role in this promising environment for real and lasting solutions.