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Big changes afoot as new leader takes over Salvation Army in Tampa Bay area

Captain Andy Miller, left, and his wife Abby Miller are leading the Salvation Army’s operation in Hillsborough County.
Published Aug. 19, 2016

TAMPA

Walking around the Salvation Army's Tampa headquarters, new area commander Andy Miller III balances a tray of pastries with one hand so he can shake hands with volunteers and "guests," the army's term for people who stay at the shelter on Florida Avenue.

It's a job and vocation the sixth-generation army officer was born into.

His grandfather, Andrew Miller, was national commander of the charity that estimates it assists 30 million Americans every year.

Miller took over as area commander for Hillsborough County about seven weeks ago along with his wife, Abby Miller. They are replacing James Hall, who was reassigned to Washington, D.C.

New leadership is likely to be only the first of several major changes.

Over the next two months, the army expects to phase out the last of its transitional housing, add social services at its worship center on Sligh Avenue and revamp its Riverview operation, possibly in a new location.

Mindful of how development has raised the value of land on the fringe of downtown Tampa, the army is also carrying out appraisals of its three properties around its Florida Avenue headquarters, although there are no definite plans to relocate.

The biggest shift will be an increased effort to get social services like mental counseling, medical treatment, education classes and other help to put more homeless into permanent housing.

More than 100 people show up for a bed every night at the army's emergency shelter, a 1926 building on the corner of Henderson and Florida avenues.

"We don't just want to take people in for the night and kick them out in the morning," Miller said. "That means we have to provide services to them as soon as they walk in; we have to make sure we engage them."

The decision to cut transitional housing was expected after the army was among several Hillsborough nonprofit groups hit by the loss of $800,000 in federal funding in May. The accommodation was intended to keep at-risk populations from becoming homeless until they find a permanent home.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development now favors programs that put homeless people in permanent housing and then provides them with the social services they need.

The army has already scaled down its transitional housing and will find permanent places for the final nine people still in the program, Miller said.

In some ways, the group is still in transition after its decision to end 40 years as the county's probation services provider in 2015. That came after the army lost its Pinellas County contract because of concerns that 12 percent of probationer fees were going to the charity's state headquarters.

The army's administrative building on Florida Avenue still includes cashier desks where people convicted of misdemeanors turned up to pay fees. Classrooms where probationers received counseling have been repurposed for homeless people trying to earn GEDs.

In addition to its emergency shelter, the organization runs a facility on Nebraska Avenue that treats and houses about 150 people who abuse drugs. It also provides longer-term accommodation for victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse, homeless people still recuperating from medical procedures, and veterans.

That includes Juan Becerra, a U.S. Navy veteran of five years, who is going back to school to be a dental assistant.

The 34-year-old was sleeping in his car and was wary of staying in a shelter with other homeless people. He was pleasantly surprised to learn he qualified for a private room and extended stay.

"This is awesome; it's clean up here," he said. "I didn't think you would have privacy."

Miller, 36, doesn't like the word "promotion" but acknowledges that Hillsborough is a much larger district than his previous command assignment in Lawrenceville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb of about 30,000 people.

He and his wife had visited Tampa only once before to perform with an army band. He plays trumpet; she plays percussion.

The pair married 14 years ago and have three children, Andy, Titus and Georgia.

"He's very outgoing; he loves to meet people," Abby Miller said of her husband. "He's charismatic; he has a great vision for what the Salvation Army can be."

Although new to the area, Miller is aware that the army's reputation took a knock in recent years that will take time and work to restore.

In 2011, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times determined that the army owned a $12 million Florida headquarters in Lutz and dozens of homes in the Tampa Bay area, part of its largely tax-exempt $75 million real estate portfolio.

The Times also reported that former Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman, now running for that office again, was on the Salvation Army's payroll, making $95,000 a year before he retired in 2010, and that Salvation Army officers, who are ordained clergy, live rent-free in homes that cost as much as $300,000.

Miller acknowledges the army could have handled the situation with Norman better, but said the Lutz building is an administrative center for operations across the state.

As for personal accommodation for officers, army rules dictate that it must be no larger than 2,400 square feet and not be in a gated community or have a pool, he added.

More recent criticism of the army came from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn who said just feeding and providing shelter for the homeless does not help the city nor the homeless long term.

Miller's recent request for a meeting with the city's leader was declined, Miller said.

"He's probably frustrated with some of the direction we took in the past," Miller said. "I think once he sees the changes we are making, he will be more willing to partner with us."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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