A Pasco commission majority rightly understands the need for an aggressive and comprehensive response to a growing homeless population. On a 3-2 vote Tuesday afternoon, Commissioners Ann Hildebrand, Jack Mariano and Pat Mulieri wisely instructed their Community Development team to go after a $1.4 million federal grant to try to assist up to 130 people considered to be chronically homeless — that is homeless for at least a year. The grant would pay for outreach services, physical and mental health care, job training and case management. Separately, the county will use up to $780,000 to provide housing vouchers over the three-year life of the grant.
Unfortunately, the need for county participation brought misguided objections from Commissioners Ted Schrader and Henry Wilson. Schrader feared the housing vouchers would deplete the county's existing down payment program that helps first-time home-buyers and generates fix-up work for local contractors. Wilson said he wanted the private sector to handle the entire operation. Both are off-base.
The county's down payment program – HOME Investment Partnership Program – has roughly $1.1 million available annually, plus up to $700,000 coming in via repaid loans. The homeless vouchers would consume just 15 percent of that funding, leaving plenty of dollars available for the original use.
Wilson, meanwhile, should be assured that the federal grant would be administered by the county but passed through to a newly formed consortium of service providers: The Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County, BayCare Behavioral Health, Saint Leo University, Premier Community HealthCare Group, Good Samaritan Health Clinic, Connections Job Development and Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board.
Schrader and Wilson's opposition stalled the grant application Tuesday morning while Mulieri was absent from the commission meeting. It brought a gentle and rarely seen — though still badly needed — rebuke from Paula O'Neil, comptroller and clerk of the circuit court. She urged commissioners to take every opportunity they could to invest in community mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. In the afternoon, Mulieri, the commission's representative on the Homeless Coalition, joined the meeting and provided the swing vote to pursue the grant.
It is the smart thing to do. Here's why: A January count discovered the number of people considered to be chronically homeless in Pasco County is up nearly 40 percent since 2008 to nearly 1,600 people.
Chasing panhandlers from street corners might diminish the visibility of the growing homeless population, but it does nothing to try to reduce the numbers. The federal grant, if obtained, would allow the county and assorted private agencies a chance to assist more people who want a permanent place to live, a job and a changed lifestyle. What's so objectionable about that?