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City may embrace homeless initiative

City officials will decide tonight whether to support a 10-year countywide plan to combat homelessness.

The plan, which focuses on preventing homelessness and creating permanent housing, was developed by the Homeless Planning and Policy Group of Pinellas County. The group includes advocates for the homeless, business and religious leaders and officials from local governments throughout Pinellas.

While it's not clear what the plan would cost Largo or demand of the city, most commissioners appeared to support it at a recent work session.

Other cities and the county are expected to consider the plan. St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park have approved it.

Largo Commissioner Gay Gentry said cooperation between various groups and governments could be the key to making the plan effective.

"We all recognize that there are lots of agencies out there who have been addressing this issue, but sometimes, if they don't work together a lot of times they're spinning their wheels or dealing with one element and not another," she said during last week's commission work session.

Commissioner Andy Guyette, who served on the policy group with Commissioner Pat Gerard, said prevention was a major component of the plan, which is part of an initiative launched by the federal government in 2003.

"I think it's very important to try to head off people who are right on the verge of becoming homeless by identifying them and helping," Guyette said.

The countywide plan outlines strategies to deal with chronically homeless people, who often have physical, mental and substance abuse problems. More than 48 percent of homeless adults in the county qualify as being chronically homeless, which means they have been homeless for more than a year or they have experienced four or more episodes of homelessness in three years.

The plan also focuses on intervention for the working poor, job training and affordable housing; offers a number of strategies for making sure people discharged from medical facilities and jails find housing; and it provides assistance to teens in foster care so they can learn to live independently.

"We're talking about discharging people from hospitals, jails and treatment centers with no plan of where they should go, and that's just wrong. We need to be working harder to make sure they have somewhere to go when we discharge them," said Gerard, vice president of Pinellas Programs for Family Resources, a nonprofit that assists children and families.

On any given night there are more than 4,000 homeless people in the county, according to the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit which helped the policy group craft the plan. About 6 percent of the county's homeless were in Largo, according to an annual count last year by the organization.

About 43 percent were in St. Petersburg and 20 percent were in Clearwater, the survey found.

But Largo officials shouldn't be comforted by the city's seemingly low percentage, said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. Homeless populations are moving from built-out areas like St. Petersburg to places like Largo and a shortage of affordable housing could put more residents out on the street, she said.

The cost of the plan is not known, but a consultant for the policy group concluded that not doing anything could be more expensive in the long run.

The cost to the county to reduce homelessness by 50 percent over five years would be about $33-million, but the cost of not addressing homelessness would be about $67-million over the same period, consultant Herb Marlowe estimated.

Even less clear is what the plan would cost Largo. While city staff and City Manager Steve Stanton support the plan, Stanton said the unknown factors concern him.

"This type of program has been a county function," Stanton said. "They're organized to deal with this. We're not."

But Gerard said the city has invested in some elements covered in the plan and is working on others. For example, the city supports education classes to help people become homeowners and is considering adopting the county's ordinance to protect mobile home owners.

She added that a major part of the plan involves supporting other municipalities that have programs in place to deal with homelessness.

"If we don't want to have to provide those services in Largo, we better support the others who are supporting it in their city," Gerard said. "I think we have moral responsibility to do our part."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com.

HOMELESS IN PINELLAS

The Largo City Commission will consider a countywide plan to combat homelessness during its meeting at 6 tonight at City Hall, 201 Highland Ave.

On the day of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless' 2005 annual survey, 4,540 people were homeless in the county, including 3,655 adults and 885 children. On average, each week 368 people in Pinellas will lose their place to stay. Of those:

+ 294 will have no place to go or no money to pay for shelter.

+ 160 people are estimated to be homeless for the first time.

+ 32 will be children.

Source: "Opening Doors of Opportunity: A 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Pinellas County," from the Homeless Planning and Policy Group of Pinellas County.

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