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Pinellas homeless board struggling to agree on how to achieve its mission

Rhonda Abbott resigned her post on the Pinellas Homeless Leadership Board.
Published May 14, 2015

PINELLAS PARK — Grappling with an identity crisis sparked by the resignation of its director, Pinellas County's Homeless Leadership Board voted Wednesday to move forward with a "housing first" strategy to achieve its mission of ending homelessness.

It did so, however, without the support of three of its most prominent elected officials, who made their frustration clear.

County Commissioner Janet Long, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Public Defender Bob Dillinger voted against the motion supported by a dozen other members at a special workshop called after executive director Rhonda Abbott resigned her post. The three want the board to have more authority to set policy and control funding to effect change.

"If we don't have some type of clout, we're not going to get anything done," Dillinger said. "If we want to get housing, decriminalize homelessness and get people jobs, we need to have the authority to do it."

It is a critical time for the 21-member board of local elected officials, social services professionals and community leaders who now must find a replacement for Abbott while addressing fractured stances. Asked by a board member Wednesday why she resigned, Abbott cited the lack of resources to support the "fragile" agency's mission and "the division of this board."

A private, nonprofit organization with two full-time staff and a part-time employee, the board develops strategies to tackle homelessness, secures funding and coordinates with service providers and government agencies. As a designated "lead agency" required by federal law, the board also doles out grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to seven or eight providers in the county. This year's HUD grant totaled $3.9 million.

But the board is a pass-through for those dollars and, according to some members, accomplishes little else.

Dillinger and Gualtieri say they want a new model that would give the board more authority to set policy that providers would have to follow. They cited the county's Juvenile Welfare Board, which has strict guidelines for organizations that receive funding.

"JWB sets policies to help children and people adhere to that. Why? Because they have to," said Gualtieri, who has served on the homeless board for five years. "My question for all of the providers is, if this board comes up with a structure, a plan to end homelessness that may not be aligned with the policies of that entity, would you nonetheless be willing to subject yourselves to the policy decisions of this board? Because if they're not, it's for naught."

Long cited a recent study by the leadership board that showed at least $36 million, mostly in public dollars, is funneled into Pinellas County to various providers each year. She suggested the county could provide administrative support and distribute the HUD money and other funding without hijacking the policy-setting process.

"Nobody has been able to explain to me the value of this board the way it's structured," Long said.

Several board members shared the same frustration but disagreed that major changes are needed.

"I would propose the system is not broken, it's just under-cooked," said Chairman Michael Raposa, the CEO of Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas Inc. "It just needs time."

Raposa noted the board is bringing in representatives from the National Alliance to End Homelessness to help Pinellas shift to a system that puts the priority on placing clients in permanent housing, then provides other services such as job training. For the leadership board to endorse this new "housing first" model is a huge step forward, Raposa said.

The board probably doesn't need more regulatory power, but does need a plan to bring providers and the business community on board, said board member Beth Houghton, executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. "If we had an initiative that was well-articulated and well thought out, we would have the bully pulpit," she said.

Gualtieri was skeptical. After the meeting, he wondered how the board will deal with providers that don't want to adopt the housing first model. He's considering asking the board to change its bylaws requiring the sheriff to serve.

"I don't like to walk away from things, but you also have to be realistic about it," he said. "This is just not effective and right now, I don't feel like I'm accomplishing anything."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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