TAMPA — A lot has changed this past year on the homeless landscape, including a revamping — and renaming — of the umbrella organization that collects and distributes funding to reduce the number of people living on the streets in Hillsborough County.
The changes also mark a switch in direction as homeless advocates across the nation are taking a new tack in addressing homelessness. Less is being spent on short-term services and more on housing, especially permanent housing.
That’s the new direction of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, which recently changed its name to the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.
“The over-arching goal will be to achieve sustainable permanent housing solutions for everyone in our community,” said the organization’s CEO Maria Barcus in a message posted on the initiative’s Facebook page.
To bring about the change, a new transitional board of directors has been appointed.
“We’ve already started making progress,” said Guy King, a member of the transitional board. “We went around the country and housing first is clearly the way the majority of communities are going. They are getting away from the shelter model.”
Housing first is a mandate from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which provides most of the funding to the initiative, which collects and disburses around $7 million a year from government grants, not including private donations.
The HUD funding comes with strings, meaning the initiative has to focus its efforts on providing homes - some transitional, but mostly permanent - for the homeless. Shelter programs, treatment and training plans are becoming more of a secondary role.
Those programs don’t necessarily help chronically homeless to a long-term solution, King said, as many are mentally ill or have addiction issues or both.
“They aren’t going to be going to work any time soon,” he said. “They are not trainable; they are not going to bounce back like some of the young men in the Salvation Army programs.”
The tack taken by homeless advocates in the past was to try to get the chronically homeless back into mainstream society.
“It just wasn’t working,” King said. “And we could see it was going to collapse. HUD was changing the funding to more of a supportive housing model, to take the homeless right off the street and put them into housing, without demanding they get sober or get a job.”
Some homeless individuals will never be able to hold down a job, but if they have a home, they are less likely to cost the community in other ways, he said. If you have a roof over your head, a permanent address, good things will follow.
“If you don’t have a house,” he said, “bad things come.’’
A couple of years ago, Tampa area residents were shocked to learn there were some 10,000 homeless living among them, under bridges, in makeshift campsites in the shadows of interstates; on couches in friends’ homes, in cheap, pay-by-the-night motels or in cars. Families joined the throng as the economy tanked.
It turns out those numbers were suspect. A survey of homeless last year showed a quarter of the 10,000 number actually struggled on the streets. A second count was conducted, which affirmed the lower number.
Surveyors counted 2,275 homeless in Hillsborough County in April. It was a number that gave hope to advocates.
Barcus was hired last January, and she espoused the importance of housing.
Already some apartment buildings have been renovated and are housing chronically homeless people.
Three new federally funded homeless prevention and rapid rehousing assistance programs have begun in Hillsborough County since 2011, and they are credited with assisting more than 1,900 people over the past two years. Rapid re-housing is a national trend that offers temporary assistance to help homeless individuals and families move quickly into permanent housing, critical to long-term success, advocates say.
The transitional board of directors in Hillsborough County represents a wider swath of the community, including representatives of local non-profits that minister to the homeless, business and government leaders.
Barcus, who was out of town this week and couldn’t be reached for comment, has said the retooling of the structure of her organization is near the end of a two-year process.
“During this process, a lot was learned about our community’s homeless system of care with regard to great work that is being done, as well as areas where improvements can be made,” she said in a recent announcement of the transitional board. “One of the changes that came out of this lengthy process was a need to change our organization’s governance structure, with an underlying understanding that homelessness is a community issue and not the sole responsibility of the Homeless Coalition or nonprofit service providers to solve.”
Previously, the board had been made up of representatives of organizations that had received funding from the coalition.
There was a consensus that it could be perceived as a conflict of interest to have representatives of organizations voting to receive funds through the coalition, and that prompted some of the changes.
Member organizations, those nonprofits that work with the homeless, approved the reorganization late last year.
“While our governance structure has changed,” Barcus said in the announcement, “our mission and role in the community has not.”
Metropolitan Ministries, which provides transitional housing for homeless families is watching the change in direction, though no funds from the initiative make it to Metropolitan Ministries, which operates solely on donations.
We have a vested interest in her being successful,” Metropolitan Ministries CEO Tim Marks said.