Leaders talk about dealing with Tampa's homeless situation

Antoinette Tripplett's immediate goal after taking the reins as CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative in August was to spend the first 90 days observing and speaking to the various players involved with the homeless community. 

But she says she was "coerced" into doing something quicker than that, which means that on Veterans Day,  Operation: REVEILLE , a program that will move 50 military veterans currently living on the streets or in emergency shelter into their own home, will be enacted.

"By the end of the day they'll have a place fully furnished," Tripplett told a crowd gathered at the University Club in downtown Tampa Tuesday morning, in a discussion about the homeless hosted by the Tampa Downtown Partnership. That new home will come furnished with cooking utensils, and they'll be set up to get a dental examination and mental checkup, and be connected with a social worker for peer support.

It's a plan the new head of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (formerly known as the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County) put in place when she worked in homeless services in St. Louis the past 13 years, first as Division Manager and then as the City Planning Executive of the Homeless Services Division.

Tripplett also discussed her plans to create a centralized intake hotline phone number, where the homeless can call to learn what services are available to them. That's still in the planning stages, but ultimately she hopes to have at least 50 different faith-based groups and corporate partners help her enact that program. 

"Currently it's been my experience that if someone is experiencing homelessness, they have to call around. Imagine how frustrating that might be when you're told 'no' so many times. You just kind of give up. So we want to bring back hope instead of hopelessness."

Tripplett replaced Maria Barcus as head of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative back in August. Barcus herself was on the job for only 20 months, having replaced Rayme Nuckles back in January of 2013. During Barcus' tenure, the organization changed its name and board of directors. 

The current number of homeless in Hillsborough stands at 2,243.

Joining Tripplett in the discussion was John Bennett, Assistant Chief of Police in Tampa. He talked in heady terms about understanding just what constitutes justice for a homeless person, and cited three specific numbers that are important for the TPD regarding the homeless: 26, 10 and 2.

The number twenty-six he said, were the number of "at-large" (and not necessarily synonymous with the homeless) people that the police make contact with every day; Ten of those 26 often end up in a criminal space; and two may be classified as engaging in "criminal conduct" such as panhandling in certain intersections (the City Council banned such activities a few years ago unless the person is selling newspapers). 

"There's been a shotgun approach to this for sometime, and we're looking forward to this collaborative opportunity through a single portal to help a single individual," Bennett said. 

He emphasized that the philosophy of Chief Jane Castor and Mayor Buckhorn has never been to "arrest our way out of this," though that was exactly the criticism that rained down on the city over the past few years as the City Council began debating way back in 2010 ways to sanction panhandling. 

Bennett said it was important for the city to create such ordinances cracking down on the homeless in 2011 and 2013 because there are only two ways to make contact with a homeless person: 1) to consensually start up a conversation, or 2) detain him or her, which must include "a certain threshold of suspicion."

That's the part of a 2013 ordinance banning aggressive solicitation in front of banks, ATMS, sidewalk cafes and bus station stops, specifically in the downtown and Ybor City areas. However, officers can't enforce the ordinance unless the city could provide alternatives for them to go to. "They don't want to make an arrest," said Bennett of his officers. "They want to make sure he's safe and has a good roof over his head."

But despite the feel-good rhetoric about a consistently vexing problem in all major American cities, some members who attended the breakfast were critical of homeless people who they say create disturbances near their downtown businesses. Public intoxication and public urination by the homeless were cited by two business officials, with one woman complaining that she gets no satisfaction when calling 9-1-1. "We don't want an arrest," she stressed. "But simply have an officer talk to them."

Bennett acknowledged her plight, saying, "We don't want an arrest, but a rapid response. You just want somebody to come by and do something. There is not a rapid response right now."

Tripplett said she envisioned having a centralized hotline by the end of this year or shortly in 2015.

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