Rayme Nuckles: "It could be your neighbor..."

Who? Rayme Nuckles, executive director of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. He is also the president of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless and the Governor's Council on Homelessness.

Sphere of Influence: Hillsborough County has the fifth-largest population in the nation of homeless men and women. Nuckles, through the HCHC, advocates for the 10,000 homeless men, women and children on the street, and works with social service providers to obtain federal, state and local funding.

How he makes a difference: Since joining the Coalition in Dec. 2002, Nuckles has leaned on city and county leaders to provide more affordable housing and social-services funding. "Before Rayme, we didn't have any city support, and we didn't have any dollars from the county," says longtime HCHC staffer Edi Erb. "Rayme was instrumental. I don't know what it'd be like if we were trying to do this as volunteers." Nuckles also regularly meets with homeless advocacy organizations in Manatee, Sarasota and Pinellas counties to help them get the maximum amount of federal grants.

CL: There are so many stereotypes with the homeless. How do you influence county leaders who may never have contact with those on the street?

Nuckles: That influence really comes through direct contact, helping them understand that most of the people in our community are not choosing to be homeless. They're homeless, or very near to homelessness, because a situation has occurred in their household. Just last week, we had a [real estate] appraiser call us. He has no work. He hasn't paid his house payment in six months, and he's doing what he can to put food on the table. Those types of things you hear going on in your community. He could be your neighbor.

Are city and county leaders listening?

I think because of our advocacy efforts we have elevated the issue to a point that our city council members and county commissioners understand the issues on a more localized level. When we had our campaign "Unexpected Faces," [Hillsborough] Commissioner [Mark] Sharpe was there to speak, and several of the representatives' aides were there as well. They're really starting to understand it's not the guy on the side of the street that's asking for the money; it's the family that needs the help. Those are the issues we're trying to get people to focus on. Do you really understand that it can be that one medical visit that can put a family on the verge of homelessness or [make them] homeless? Or that one car repair that puts them over the edge?

The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness was adopted by the HCHC in 2002. Will Hillsborough County end homelessness in 2012?

Probably not.

Why?

Improvement needs to continue specifically in the area of affordable housing. Every year, we make a little bit of progress on affordable housing in this community. [Currently, we can accommodate only 15 percent of the 10,000 homeless individuals in Hillsborough] I think the national average is 28 percent. ... Every year we make very small strides in the affordable housing area. We may have 20 or 40 beds but really small progress. It's simply because of grant funds that are available. That's it. We maximize every dollar that we get in this community for housing. We at the HCHC have prioritized affordable housing as our main goal.

What is one project that you'd like to see implemented to help the area's homeless?

If there was one project ... it is the recuperative care center. [It] is a center specifically for individuals who are either coming out of an assisted-living facility or a hospital [when] the hospital says you've met your time here, there's no reason for you to be here but you still need some type of care. This particular facility will have 15 beds.

To answer your question more fully: When we developed the 10-year plan, one of the issues that we identified was this community is about 15,000 units short of where we need to be for people with low income. I would love to see us hit a quarter of that — 5,000 units. Just getting 5,000 units for people in this community for people who are low income would make a significant difference.

What do you think of Pinellas Hope, the Catholic Charities' tent city?

We would not support a project that is going to house individuals in tents. I admire their tenacity to do what they can in their community, and every community deals with this in a different way. I'm grateful for Catholic Charities for the work they do. ... I guess we'll have to see what happens after five months. I would have preferred to have seen them take the money they were getting and putting it into some affordable housing project. They raised about $1.4 million, right? That would've maybe gotten 20 more beds in the community, 20 more people in your community who become part of a neighborhood, taxpaying citizens, getting them engaged again. And from my perspective, it goes much further than spending that kind of money on 250 people who are going to be back there in six months.

What is the hardest aspect of homeless advocacy?

While I appreciate all of the efforts of the city and the county and the funding they've provided our organization, bureaucracy is probably the most frustrating.

What keeps you focused?

The one thing that really helps me put things back into focus is hearing a homeless child or youth speak about their situation. That's where I probably feel more compelled and think, "This is what I'm in it for. This is why I'm here."

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