Tampa business and government leaders consider 'housing-first' strategy to tackle chronic homelessness

Published Jan. 27, 2012

TAMPA — A group of heavy-hitting Tampa business executives and local officials is exploring a new strategy to alleviate the problem of chronic homelessness in Hillsborough County.

Known as a "housing-first" approach, the idea is to provide a network of support services and supportive housing to chronically homeless people, an estimated 7,000 of whom live in Hillsborough.

"Most of them need help, and we've got a lot of services out there, but nothing coordinated to really do a comprehensive program, and that's what we're headed for," said County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who is involved in the public-private group working on the program.

The group also includes Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Candy Olson, Tampa Bay Lightning chief executive officer Tod Leiweke, M.E. Wilson Company president Guy King, Tampa Tank chief executive officer Calvin Reed and Rayme Nuckles, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

Leiweke in particular brings relevant experience to the effort. In Seattle, where he was CEO of the Seattle Seahawks, he led a 2008-09 United Way campaign that raised more than $100 million to help fight family homelessness.

In other cities with housing-first programs, the combination of housing and coordinated social services helps homeless people stabilize their lives and apply for jobs, veterans benefits or other assistance while staying physically and mentally healthy.

That, in turn, helps prevent them from relapsing into substance abuse, mental illness or other problems that send them to jail or the emergency room.

"You cannot fix homelessness and you cannot get people back on their feet unless they have a roof over their heads," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who met two weeks ago with King and the president of a nonprofit program that uses this model in Santa Monica, Calif. "Whatever investment you make on the front end of this problem saves you on the back end."

While the group has visited cities with similar programs, "we're still in the conceptual phase," Murman said.

Buckhorn said he understands that the group is not at this point looking at real estate.

Anything launched as a result of the group's work will have to be methodical, will not be a quick fix and will require the private sector to be "a player in this in a big way," the mayor said. He also expects groups such as Metropolitan Ministries, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army to be involved. And he expects "we'll start out relatively modestly."

Leiweke, King, Reed and Nuckles could not be reached Thursday, but the group's effort came up for a brief discussion during a Tampa City Council workshop on city efforts to help homeless people.

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After passing a six-day-per-week ban on many forms of roadside solicitation last fall, council members asked Buckhorn's administration for a list of city properties that might be used for homeless services.

In September, the council endorsed the idea of creating a shelter and assessment facility modeled on Pinellas County's Safe Harbor shelter, which provides social services and mental and physical health care.

Thomas Snelling, the city's acting growth management and development services director, told council members Thursday that officials have looked, but the city does not have a centrally located property that's big enough, available and suitable for such a facility.

Council members were incredulous.

"A joke," said council member Frank Reddick.

"I feel like the message that we're getting is basically, you've got nothing," Council member Mary Mulhern told Snelling.

While Snelling gave council members a summary of the public-private group's discussion, council members still want to pursue something similar to Safe Harbor. The Pinellas shelter was created inside a former bus building and is managed by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. It also receives support from St. Petersburg, smaller Pinellas cities, county government and nonprofit groups.

Advocates of a similar facility here have explored the idea of converting vacant bunks at the Orient Road Jail, but Sheriff David Gee has said that's not feasible.

If the city's staff does not have ideas to offer, council member Harry Cohen said council members should. He said it's worth looking at the Hillsborough Correctional Women's Prison in Riverview, which the state may shutter.

Buckhorn said later he agreed.

"I thought about that when I read that news," he said. "That may be an option that's worth pursuing. I'd be open to looking at it."