TAMPA — There is one stark difference between how Tampa Bay's two most populous counties address their homeless problems: Pinellas has a publicly funded homeless shelter. Hillsborough doesn't.
That may change soon.
A former work-release center near the Hillsborough County Orient Road Jail, east of Tampa, could be converted into a homeless shelter for up to 175 people, County Administrator Mike Merrill told county commissioners Thursday. Sheriff David Gee called Merrill last week and suggested the new use for the building.
Merrill mentioned the possible shelter as part of a discussion about Hillsborough's homeless. Commissioners on Thursday approved the first step in Merrill's plan to revamp the county's temporary shelter program — a $1.18 million contract with Tampa-based nonprofit Metropolitan Ministries to provide emergency housing for homeless families and women.
The county is in the process of outsourcing the services formerly offered by its troubled Homeless Recovery program — which closed Dec. 31 — to local nonprofits. A series of Tampa Bay Times articles last year highlighted how Homeless Recovery sent the poor to live in dilapidated, hazardous housing.
In the face of criticism from commissioners Thursday, Merrill said he's acting as fast as he can.
"We're trying to rebuild a system that has been broken for a number of years," he said. "It doesn't get done overnight."
The proposed homeless shelter would be at 1800 Orient Road, across the street from the jail. The Sheriff's Office uses part of the building as office space, said agency spokesman Larry McKinnon, but most of it has been unused since 2009.
One of the nonprofits taking over county homeless services would probably run the shelter, Merrill said. The county is negotiating contracts with the Salvation Army, which would help single men, women and some families, and the Agency for Community Treatment Services, or ACTS, which would help homeless people with mental health or substance abuse problems.
Details like cost and a timeline are unclear, but Merrill expects to use the building as a shelter.
In Pinellas County, homeless men and women can stay at Pinellas Safe Harbor, a 470-person capacity shelter run by the Sheriff's Office there and funded by the county and some cities.
"We have a deficit in housing options," Merrill said. "It really is key to get people off the streets."
Commissioners had no problems with the proposed shelter.
"We've really never committed enough significant resources to (homelessness)," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner. "We need to get this issue solved."
The long-term goal, Merrill told commissioners, is to be like St. Louis. Merrill visited the city with others last week on the recommendation of Philip Mangano, former national "homelessness czar" under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and met with management of their homeless services.
Hillsborough homeless advocates have been consulting Mangano, who suggested the St. Louis trip.
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That city's system — run by nonprofits, but managed and funded by government and business — requires collaboration that doesn't exist in Hillsborough, Merrill said. But that doesn't mean it can't.
"You look back nine years ago," he said of St. Louis, "and they look a lot like us today."
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.