Pasco County is trying to move to business smarts from a big heart in confronting homelessness. It is a welcome tactic, but it should develop a sense of urgency. The transition started in 2004 when the county's Community Development Division took on grant writing and fiscal management responsibilities for the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco Inc. It was a needed change given the paltry participation among nonprofits in seeking available federal money.
It surfaced again last summer when, at the urging of state Sen. Mike Fasano, social agencies, and business and government representatives agreed to sit on a task force with the intent of grabbing a bigger share of U.S. assistance for Pasco's homeless.
Eight months later, at a Monday afternoon press conference on the steps of the historic Pasco County Courthouse in Dade City, the task force announced it would take the next three to six months to write its 10-year plan to battle homelessness. It is a needed step, but one we would have hoped would have been under way.
We do not fault the participants, it is simply an illustration of Pasco's stretched-too-thin talent pool of civic volunteers. With few corporate officers and no major city mayor to tap, the task force chores fell to the mayor of one of Pasco's smallest cities, Richard Rober of Port Richey, and Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina who already has a full-time job.
(In St. Petersburg, for instance, the mayor, a college president and the CEO of Progress Energy helped culled together a plan in just a few weeks after the infamous police tent-slashing at a homeless camp in January 2007.)
The 10-year plan essentially is a coordinated business plan to try to end homelessness rather than piecemeal social work to manage it. More than 300 communities across the country, including eight in Florida, have devised similar plans and Pasco is poised to pick and choose strategies appropriate for use here.
It will be a challenge. Pasco is not a single metropolitan entity such as St. Petersburg or Tampa, so it can't simply produce a carbon copy of efforts there. Nearly 90 percent of Pasco's residents are in the unincorporated areas outside the six municipalities and its communities range from rural eastern Pasco, the bedroom communities in south-central Pasco, and the urbanized west side with its mix of high-end homeowners, retirees and younger, working class families.
Yet, each sees a visible homeless population — along the edge of State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel, sitting in the shade near a thrift store in Land O'Lakes, looking for a handout at the intersection of U.S. 19 and SR 52 in Bayonet Point or at the Interstate 75 ramp near Darby. Meanwhile, there are children and grownups in parked cars, shelters or other temporary quarters.
The most recent data available listed 4,074 homeless in Pasco in February 2008, not counting so-called doubled-up families —two families living under a single roof — or jail inmates on the verge of release.
The project also must stress preventing homelessness — 65 percent of the county's 5,000 foreclosures are primary residences — and offer a comprehensive strategy beyond a new shelter. Nearly half of the homeless people abuse drugs or alcohol or have other mental health issues. A broad strategy requires social services, case management, employment opportunities, transportation, emergency shelter space, transitional housing and an affordable housing stock.
The work ahead is significant. The task force should be commended for volunteering to assume it. But in the next several months, their recommendations will require a commitment from the private and public sector to turn words on paper into people under roofs.