It became increasingly clear Wednesday why Hillsborough County has the worst homeless problem of any county in Florida. Just a week after derailing a thoughtful, detailed plan by Catholic Charities for a homeless camp east of Tampa, the County Commission's follow-up amounted to a half-baked idea from Commissioner Kevin White, who proposed creating a homeless shelter in an office park on the north side of town. Hillsborough needs a sound approach, not political stunts, to address its homeless problem.
White wanted to spend $722,000 up front to negotiate a lease for a homeless shelter at the defunct Floriland Mall, which now houses social services offices. Never mind that the county has yet to notify surrounding neighborhoods, hold any public hearings, budget the money or find an agency to operate the shelter. The landlord has not even signed off on the idea. "He expressed strong concerns against using it for a homeless shelter," a staffer told commissioners. Yet, the board voted 7-0 for the staff to explore the idea further and report back.
Perhaps White, under a cloud since August when a federal court found he sexually harassed his aide, was trying to atone for last week's indefensible vote. He joined three other commissioners to narrowly defeat the tent city proposal, 4-3. But the sudden, ill-considered interest by him and the board underscores the utter lack of leadership the commission has shown in addressing one of the county's most pressing issues.
Hillsborough has the largest number of homeless people of any county in Florida; at 10,000, about twice the number of the biggest counties, such as Miami-Dade or Pinellas. Yet the county has shown no urgency in addressing the problem. A senior staffer wrote commissioners this month that a search of county-owned property showed no parcels suitable for a homeless camp. Commissioners barely challenged that finding or pressed the staff to quit throwing up bureaucratic barriers.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who made the motion to kill the tent city proposal, said the Floriland idea at least shows the commission's concern with the plight of the homeless. It actually shows the opposite: the board's willingness to wing policy on the homeless to score immediate political points. Here's what the county needs to bring to the table: a list of public and private parcels suitable for housing the homeless and providing life-skills training; possible changes to the county land codes to encourage both temporary and permanent housing; and a dedicated funding source for comprehensive homeless services, rather than relying on the patchwork cobbled together by charity care, law enforcement, welfare and other assistance. Wednesday's move was a rush job. What the homeless and taxpayers need is a thoughtful strategy for bringing together the major players.