Money, political hurdles face Hillsborough in tackling homelessness

TP_339415_WALL_Lee_10 (06/02/2011 Tampa) Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill listens to discussion about a rec center in Brandon. [DANIEL WALLACE, Times]
TP_339415_WALL_Lee_10 (06/02/2011 Tampa) Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill listens to discussion about a rec center in Brandon. [DANIEL WALLACE, Times]
Published Feb. 23, 2014

TAMPA — In 2002, local leaders adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Hillsborough County based on the "housing first" philosophy sweeping the nation. In 2005, the city of St. Louis adopted a similar plan.

Nine years later, St. Louis' plan has lowered its homeless population by more than 30 percent.

Hillsborough's plan was never carried out.

Local leaders are starting over. Last month, a group visited St. Louis to see what a working program looks like.

What they saw presents daunting challenges as they try to emulate St. Louis' system here:

A community a fourth of Hillsborough County's population size with twice as much federal homelessness money.

Scores of community groups sharing a common computer program to help keep track of homeless people.

A political will to tackle the problem.

"The key is get a good plan and work it. Don't let it disappear into the bureaucracy," said Calvin Reed, 77, chairman of Steps Forward, a consortium of business and political leaders focused on housing the chronically homeless. "They just didn't take people and stuff them somewhere and forget about them, which is basically what we've been doing."

• • •

The trip to St. Louis was recommended by Phil Mangano, former national homeless policy czar under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He's been advising Reed and others interested in improving Tampa's homeless services.

Reed invited Maria Barcus, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, who was working on a new business plan for her organization. Reed also invited Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, who was in the midst of outsourcing the county's homeless services after shuttering its troubled Homeless Recovery program.

St. Louis' system is what Barcus, Merrill and Reed say they want here: a well-organized network, services funded with public money but delivered by nonprofits and private organizations, and successes proven with data.

In interviews last week, the Hillsborough leaders highlighted four major advantages St. Louis has over Hillsborough.

•Money: St. Louis, with a population of about 318,000, gets about $11 million each year from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless assistance. Hillsborough, with its population of about 1.28 million, gets $5.5 million. St. Louis also has a sales tax generating $5 million each year for affordable housing.

Hillsborough officials need to get better at grant writing, Merill said. He also plans to devote more money in the county's budget to homeless services.

Barcus said HUD awards homeless assistance money based on amounts communities applied for in the 1990s, when the program was new. There's not much she can do, she said, to get more unless the federal government changes how it's awarded.

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•Coordination: Every organization that helps homeless people in St. Louis — there are more than 60 — uses the same computer system to track clients. Barcus is in the process of trying to get all homeless service organizations here onto the same system, and is writing a new business plan in the hopes of building a collaborative network.

•Housing: St. Louis has more than 1,400 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless; apartments scattered across the city. The city's homeless network has relationships with landlords who provide decent housing, and accept formerly homeless tenants whose rents are covered or subsidized for months, and potentially years.

Reed's Steps Forward is trying to create 500 housing units for chronically homeless people over the next few years. The "housing first" model is based, in part, on reams of studies that concluded housing the chronically homeless and covering their rent with public dollars costs less than leaving them on the streets, where they bounce between shelters, jails and emergency rooms.

•Persistent, stable political leadership. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who has held office since 2001, has made addressing homelessness a priority. A handful of city staffers work full-time managing its homeless network.

None of the Hillsborough County commissioners attended the trip to St. Louis, although Commissioner Mark Sharpe sent an aide. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was invited, but was unable to attend.

In a phone interview this week while lobbying in Tallahassee, Buckhorn said he will be active in re-shaping homeless services.

"We all realize that we're going to have to do more, and it has to be coordinated, and it has to focus on outcomes," he said.

• • •

So why did St. Louis' plan gain traction while Hillsborough's faltered? Merrill and Buckhorn blame homeless coalition management before Barcus.

Former CEO Rayme Nuckles stepped down in 2012 after 10 years and moved to Oregon. Nuckles did not return several calls for comment last week.

Of the 2002 plan, Merrill said: "Nothing tangible was produced."

A prime example of the coalition's dysfunction has been its inability over the years to assess the county's homeless problem.

Under Nuckles' leadership, the annual count of Hillsborough's homeless — a key measurement for success in helping the homeless — wildly fluctuated.

In St. Louis, the number has dropped from 2,109 in 2004 to 1,386 last month.

In 2007, Nuckles acknowledged to a reporter the annual count here was probably inaccurate, as he had no way of knowing it didn't mistakenly count some people multiple times. This may help explain the shifting numbers: 11,023 in 2005; 9,532 in 2007; 17,775 in 2011.

Last year, under Barcus' leadership, the coalition counted 2,275 homeless people. This year's count happens Thursday, and Barcus will use it as the baseline for measuring success for the homeless initiative. She intends to unveil the new plan in March.

Bill Siedhoff, a St. Louis city official in charge of the homeless network there, said he was impressed with the "desire for change" he saw in Barcus, Reed and Merrill.

He cautioned, though, that even St. Louis' progress on a 10-year plan to "end homelessness" will not actually end homelessness. Every year, more seep in from neighboring counties.

"If everyone was doing their part, ending homelessness would be much easier," Siedhoff said. "It never stops."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or