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Hillsborough homeless programs grappling with loss of $800,000 in federal grants

TAMPA — More than 200 people in temporary housing — including victims of domestic abuse and young mothers with infants — are at risk of ending up on the streets following the loss of $800,000 in federal funding for Hillsborough County's homeless programs.

Leaders at Alpha House, the Salvation Army and the Spring said they learned last week that they weren't awarded federal grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The groups used that money to pay for transitional housing, which are temporary accommodations that keep at-risk populations from becoming homeless until they can find a permanent home.

Transitional housing stays typically last up to six months, so the loss of funds is already being felt. Alpha House is leaving beds empty despite a waiting list of families. The Salvation Army says it has lost $73,000 keeping its transitional housing open.

"We are doing everything we can as an agency to see about the possibility of continuing services," Alpha House executive director Patricia Langford said. "But we can't do that without funding."

The loss of those grants has become a contentious issue between the agencies and Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, which handled the grant application. That group serves as an umbrella organization that coordinates homelessness programs across the county.

Antoinette Hayes Triplett, the group's CEO, didn't return requests for comment from the Tampa Bay Times. But in an email to group board members on Friday, she said the group lost the funding because HUD now favors programs that put homeless people in permanent housing and then provides them with the social services they need.

The shift is based on data that shows that approach is more effective at reducing homelessness long-term, she said.

Hillsborough is not alone in its plight. Transitional housing programs in Indiana, Miami-Dade County and New York have also lost funding in the latest round of HUD Continuum of Care grants, according to news reports.

"These results are not unique to Tampa," Hayes Triplett wrote in the email.

But leaders from Alpha House and the Salvation Army are questioning whether the Tampa Hills­borough Homeless Initiative made mistakes in the grant application.

In an email to Salvation Army supporters, regional commander James Hall said other communities have received funding for their transitional housing.

"At the very least, we believe this was a mistake on the part of our local (group), and at the very worst, this was an intentional effort to eliminate all transitional housing in Hillsborough County," Hall wrote in the email.

The Salvation Army received federal funding for its transitional housing for the past 19 years. It is the only one of the three nonprofits that provides transitional housing for men in the county.

Langford said that in a recent meeting with Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative officials, the Alpha House learned about a coding error in its grant application. Alpha House includes 16 living units with about 40 beds for young mothers with children under 5.

"I feel for women who are seeking services such as this and their lack of availability in the future is crushing," Langford said.

Hayes Triplett acknowledged the coding error in her email to the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative's board members, but said that played no part in the loss of funding. A statewide analysis of the impact is being conducted by the Florida Housing Coalition, and she expects HUD will soon update local agencies on the situation. But it is unclear if HUD can help solve the problem.

In addition to helping the homeless, transitional housing also provides short-term accommodation for veterans, people with mental illness, and victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking.

HUD officials said the 2015 Continuum of Care grants were the most competitive ever and the department recommended agencies prioritize their funding requests "carefully." About $124 million in renewal requests were eliminated from lower-performing projects nationwide, said agency spokesman Brian Sullivan.

Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative officials are set to meet Thursday with local housing agencies to attempt to try find a way to keep the programs going. One potential source of funding is public service awards from the city of Tampa. But the funds wouldn't be available until October, and they would cover only $50,000 of the $800,000 shortfall.

"That's not going to make them whole," said Vanessa McCleary, the city's housing and community development manager.

The Salvation Army is spending $1,000 of its own funds every day to keep its transitional housing open. If they don't find alternative funds soon, Hall said, they'll have to shut it down.

"It's a situation that has to be addressed," he said.

Follow @codonnell_Times.

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