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Homeless counts show drop in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties

Vacant swings hang in a children's playground at Unity Park on 4th Ave. N., St. Petersburg as a homeless person sleeps in the grass, background, 5/11/16. Residents of the nearby Jamestown homes complain children can no longer play in the park due to the homeless. The numbers of homeless in the park have increased since bus shelters were removed from Williams Park. Residents of Uptown and Methodist Town neighborhoods say the management of St. Vincent De Paul Center of Hope homeless shelter need to supervise their clients more closely.
Vacant swings hang in a children's playground at Unity Park on 4th Ave. N., St. Petersburg as a homeless person sleeps in the grass, background, 5/11/16. Residents of the nearby Jamestown homes complain children can no longer play in the park due to the homeless. The numbers of homeless in the park have increased since bus shelters were removed from Williams Park. Residents of Uptown and Methodist Town neighborhoods say the management of St. Vincent De Paul Center of Hope homeless shelter need to supervise their clients more closely.
Published May 24, 2016

Fewer homeless people live in the two largest counties in Tampa Bay — at least if recent volunteer surveys are accurate.

The drop in Pinellas County was most dramatic. Volunteers counted 2,777 homeless people, down 610 or 18 percent from the previous year.

The county still has the second-largest homeless population in the state, trailing only Miami-Dade, according to St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster

Last week, Foster, a member of the county's Homeless Leadership Board, told her colleagues on the City Council that the homeless count was a "snapshot" of the homeless situation, taken on Jan. 28 — a particularly rainy day. Previous counts, she cautioned, had taken place over several days.

"It's very nonscientific," said Michael Raposa, chief executive officer at Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas. "It's like taking a photograph over one 24-hour period.

Hillsborough County's homeless population also dropped nearly 6 percent to 1,817 since last year, according to a count on Feb. 25.

Counts were sent to the state and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department for analysis before being released publicly.

Both counties saw a large drop in homeless veterans. In Pinellas, those numbers dipped from 589 to 380 — a 35 percent dip.

Much of the decrease in Pinellas is due to a major push to house homeless vets last year, said Raposa, chairman of the homeless leadership board.

"There is still an awful lot of homeless out on the street," Raposa said. "It's an uphill battle to stay ahead of the curve."

The numbers on veterans are less reliable in Hillsborough. The count revealed 181 veterans, a drop of 42 percent from 2015. But 627 people refused to answer if they were veterans.

Nearly a third of Hillsborough respondents said they had been homeless for at least a year, and more than half said they were homeless because they lacked a job or had financial problems. In Pinellas, a quarter had been homeless for at least a year and nearly 62 percent because of financial reasons or unemployment.

A shift in federal strategy for homeless housing has affected both sides of the bay.

Called "Housing First," the new approach targets chronically homeless individuals for permanent housing backed up by social services and counseling. This method is considered to be cost-efficient because it reduces the number of times that chronically homeless people end up in hospital emergency rooms or jail — both of which are expensive, temporary and less-than-ideal ways to deal with recurring problems.

This month, the U.S. Agency for Housing and Urban Development decided not to renew $800,000 that had been going to Tampa's Alpha House, the Salvation Army and the Spring for transitional — or short-term — housing.

In response to the loss of the funding, Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative CEO Antoinette Hayes Triplett has told her board members that HUD has shifted its emphasis toward supporting programs that put people in permanent housing along with providing them with social services. And officials note that HUD has shifted money in similar ways in Miami-Dade, Indiana and New York.

Pinellas County received more than $4 million in HUD funding and didn't lose out on any funds, partially because the county has embraced Housing First, asking for training and help from the federal agency, Raposa said.

During a St. Petersburg City Council workshop last week, Housing First was discussed as a way to end chronic homelessness. Homeless advocates are pushing the city to dedicate some of its housing funds to rapid rehousing of the homeless.

In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, HUD clearly is moving away from transitional housing programs that are "outdated and inefficient."

"What HUD is, in essence, telling them is, 'We're only going to fund those that are doing it differently,' " Buckhorn said before the homeless count results were made public last week.