The problem that can't be swept away

Will the homelessness problem in Tampa Bay get worse before it gets better?

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The crisis has put people like Sarah Snyder, director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, in a tough position.

"Everybody is between a rock and a hard place," she says, her voice conveying exasperation. "The homeless need someplace to sleep, and those living and working in downtown areas don't want people going the bathroom in front of their homes and businesses."

She is trying to bring residents, business leaders, elected officials and social service providers together to tackle these issues through the newly adopted 10 Year Plan. From its office in Tampa, the HCHC is trying the same approach.

Touted as the answer to decades of homelessness rooted in the country's major cities, the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness outlines a step-by-step, year-by-year process for streamlining homeless services and aggressively dealing with the most visible homeless population — the "chronic homeless." By focusing on housing the street people who are stuck in the revolving doors of emergency shelters and soup kitchens, and then trying to direct them into substance abuse or work programs, the plan predicts the recidivism rate will be much lower.

"The emergency shelter system is not working," says Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the HCHC, which oversees Hillsborough County's 10 Year Plan.

Focusing on the chronic homeless also has another positive — it saves money. Studies in cities on both U.S. coasts have found that the chronic homeless use up an average of $50,000 a year in trips to the emergency room, jails and short-term substance abuse centers. What's more, this group — making up approximately 40 percent of the homeless in Tampa Bay — use more than 50 percent of resources.

But not everyone agrees the 10 Year Plan will actually end homelessness — at least not in 10 years.

The initiative requires social service agencies receiving HUD money earmarked for the homeless to buy into the plan and tailor it to their city — a sort of No Child Left Behind Act for the homeless. (So far, 283 cities or counties have created 10 Year Plans.) But not unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government is punting much of the funding responsibilities to the state, county and local governments. After three years of cutting funding for the program, the 2007 federal budget shows a $209 million increase in funding for Continuum of Care (CoC) grants that primarily serve the homeless. But other programs — like Section 8 vouchers that can prevent families from becoming homeless — have been cut dramatically. Other cuts, to Medicare or Community Development Grants, can also have the effect of creating more homeless.

In Hillsborough County, the funding for the homeless is not only millions of dollars lower than it is in U.S. cities that are showing some success with the plan, it decreased between 2004 and 2005.

"The grants are either sustaining programs or starting to fill a hole here or there," says HCHC spokeswoman Weikel. "What we've had to do is a lot of piecing."

This poses a problem for increasing funding next year. According to the new federal guidelines, CoC grant amounts will depend on how organizations advance the goals of ending chronic homelessness, which includes showing an increase in permanent housing. HCHC has not shown much progress for either of these goals, setting itself up for a vicious cycle comparable to one the homeless endure — without money, homeless persons cannot find a home, and without a stable home it's virtually impossible to save money. (Pinellas County's CoC funding has remained steady, experiencing a few dips and climbs, but they have an advantage in having just begun their 10 Year Plan and its required assessments.)

Sitting in his dusty office, Pastor Tom Atchison of New Life Pentecostal Church of God laughs and calls the 10 Year Plan "a joke." Atchison runs a 50-bed shelter at 8535 N. Nebraska Ave. and feeds close to 200 people every Saturday in downtown Tampa. (New Life was one of the organizations hassled by police this fall after complaints from a condo developer.) In addition, he also runs a smaller housing and rehab program that sets rigid guidelines for AA/NA meetings and requires participants to get full-time work and a savings account. It's a graduated program, in which just a handful of people are invited to go from the downtown feedings to the shelter and then to the transitional housing. His experiences have led him to believe that 99 percent of homeless are dealing with drug or alcohol abuse, or severe mental illness. Giving these people a house or apartment without dealing with their lifestyle first will end in disaster, he says.

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