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Washington comes to town to discuss homeless vets

Local agency leaders called on members of Congress to increase national affordable housing options as a solution to veteran homelessness

NEW PORT RICHEY — Access to affordable housing remains one of the biggest challenges to ending homelessness among veterans in Tampa Bay, experts said Monday at a congressional hearing.

But members of a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Veterans’ Affairs also heard encouraging news. Homelessness among veterans in Florida has effectively been cut in half since 2011, said Daniel Burgess, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, with the latest total for the state coming in at about 2,543 cases.

Burgess and others noted these statistics often understate the problem because the homeless can be hard to count. Some live in their cars, for example, or couch surf among friends and acquaintances.

“One homeless veteran is one too many,” said Democratic Congressman Mike Levin of California, who hosted a similar hearing last year near San Diego.

While various solutions and challenges were brought up at Monday’s meeting, the shortage of affordable housing options in the Tampa Bay area dominated the conversation.

“(It’s) the greatest obstacle being faced across the nation today,” said Michael Raposa, chief executive officer of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg, which provides assistance to the homeless.

Raposa noted that while it was great to see federal leadership take an interest in solving local homelessness issues, local solutions were technically already in place by way of the state’s affordable housing trust fund, which for years has seen its funds diverted to other areas.

“If we could convince the state of Florida to release the Sadowski trust fund we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Raposa said to applause.

RELATED: Gov. Ron DeSantis should end the raids on Florida’s affordable housing trust fund

David Lambert, chairman of the Pasco County Housing Authority, said that even private funding has become an issue for affordable housing projects.

Lambert noted that his agency purchased property to build approximately 78 units of veterans family housing and mental health housing but they can’t get banks to offer a loan.

At the hearing, he requested that members of Congress work to “create a regulation and a funding stream that gives enough capital to obtain financing from private banks or federally backed loans specifically to build veterans and mental health housing.”

Several speakers at Monday’s hearing, including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Tarpon Springs. said a more holistic approach is needed for homeless vets that takes into account employment opportunities, transportation and mental health access and affordable child care options.

“Without helping veterans find meaningful employment we are only providing them temporary housing and not setting them up for positive long-term success,” Bilirakis said.

Mary White, an Army veteran who once found herself homeless with her one-year-old son, said that if it weren’t for local agencies like St. Vincent de Paul or federal veteran voucher programs, she wouldn’t have been able to find work that led her to stability.

“Without child care assistance it would have been virtually impossible to succeed,” White said. “Many single parents remain trapped in the system due to this barrier alone.”