TAMPA — Fewer Florida residents are living on the streets and in shelters, according to a new federal report.
About 28,300 people in Florida experienced homelessness on a single night in 2019, down 8.7 percent from the previous year, says a Dec. 20 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The decline extends a trend that has seen homelessness across the state fall by 40 percent since 2013.
Locally, homelessness in Hillsborough County was down 8 percent compared to 2018 and by 7.5 percent in Pinellas County. But homeless advocates are warning that the true level of need is still high.
The federal report relies on point-in-time counts conducted on a single day in early 2019 in about 3,000 cities and counties. Those counts, which rely on volunteers, likely underestimate the true homeless population.
“This is literally a one-day count,” said Susan Finlaw-Dusseault, chief operating officer of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board. “It gives us a sense of year by year but it is just one day.”
Florida was one of 29 states that reported a drop in homelessness in 2019. Nonetheless, overall homelessness across the United States rose by almost 3 percent, driven in part by a 16 percent rise in California, the most populous state, and a 27 percent increase in New Mexico, 37th most populous.
The report comes as homeless agencies in Tampa Bay are already ramping up volunteer efforts for 2020 counts taking place this month and next. The Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative says it will need 650 volunteers for its Feb. 20 count. The data is used by the federal government to help determine future funding needs for each area.
This year, the Homeless Initiative will give volunteers access to a web application so they they can use their smart phones instead of carrying clipboards. There will also be a concerted effort to better track the number of unaccompanied youth — homeless people under 25 who may be staying with friends or relatives.
A “hot-spot” to find young people will be set up in Centennial Park in Ybor City, surveys will be conducted at all local high schools and a phone bank set up to reach young people on their cell phones.
“We always struggle with under-counting," said Ashley Wynn, a manager with the agency. “What we have found as the way to be successful is to meet people where they’re at.”
Over the past few years, the federal government has shifted its funding toward so-called “housing first” programs. The approach is intended to help the chronically homeless by giving them a place to live — not a shelter — backed up by focused social services to help them stabilize their lives.
People are classified as chronically homeless if they have been on the street or in shelters for at least a year because of problems like physical disability, serious mental illness or substance abuse.
“You can do housing first and make it successful,” said Barbara Wheeler, executive director of the Mid Florida Homeless Coalition, which serves Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Sumter counties. “It takes a while for an organization to believe in that concept.”
The United States’ booming economy and additional funding from Hillsborough County are helping local agencies, said Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. The county this year has pledged an extra $4.7 million for homeless programs, she said.
Her agency recently launched “560 in 560," a plan to house 560 chronic homeless people by the end of 2020. It includes “expungement clinics,” a partnership with the State Attorney’s Office providing free help for people to get their criminal record sealed or expunged. That can make it easier for them to get housing.
The agency is also planning to set up as many as 60 houses as “shared living quarters” where up to four homeless people can live together.
The effort is intended to help people like Derrick Brown.
A former Walmart worker, Brown lost his job because he couldn’t rely on the two buses he had to ride to get to work. Brown, 31, said he was evicted from his apartment in East Tampa after he let his brother stay with him.
On Friday morning, he lined up at a food truck close to Nebraska Avenue. Sitting on the curb of a side street, he ate the free meal of grits and eggs.
After so much time without a home, he admits it’s a struggle to find the discipline to seek a way out of his situation. No one will hire him because he doesn’t have an address, he said.
So he sleeps in a concrete parking lot close to Trinity Cafe, a center that provides free meals every day. When he feels low, he buys spice, a synthetic marijuana product that was banned in Tampa and in Hillsborough County. The money comes from panhandling, he said.
What will make things better?
“It comes down to me,” he said. “You can prepare and try, but you have to hold onto it.”
Want to get involved?
Homeless agencies across Tampa Bay are seeking volunteers for the 2020 homeless count. Here’s how to volunteer in your area:
- Hillsborough: Count Feb. 20. Register with the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative at thhi.org/2020-homeless-pit-count-volunteer/ or call (813) 223-6115.
- Pinellas: Count Jan. 23. The Pinellas Homeless Leadership Board has already closed its volunteer list.
- Pasco: Count Jan. 28. Register with Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County at www.pascohomelesscoalition.org/pit2020/
- Citrus, Hernando, Lake and Sumter: Count Jan. 28. The Mid Florida Homeless Coalition will provide survey training on Jan. 8 at 8:15 a.m. at People Helping People’s The Help Center at 1396 Kass Circle, Spring Hill. For more details, contact Paula Holtsclaw at 352-860-2308.