TAMPA — Edwin Hall’s one-bedroom, sparsely furnished apartment in a sketchy part of north Tampa saved his life. It snatched him from homelessness, despair and sickness, came with an address where he could get Social Security checks delivered and will play a big part in what he calls “getting my life back.”
The apartment comes courtesy of Steps Forward, a consortium of local business and corporate leaders who have taken an unconventional, but common-sense tack at solving the local homeless problem.
Hall had been living in a camp behind a liquor store on Fletcher Avenue when a social worker directed him to Steps Forward. His health was deteriorating and he was beginning to have thoughts of suicide. He says he was not an alcoholic or a drug abuser but he had just lost his job, his father had died and he had slipped into desperation.
All that changed when he moved into his new apartment, for which he pays $203 a month from his Social Security check. Now he has an address and his Medicaid has been arranged, just in time for him to visit a doctor who diagnosed prostrate cancer, for which Hall currently is getting treatment.
“If I was still homeless,” he said, “I wouldn’t know about the cancer. I might be dead.”
The 56-year-old Tampa man had been homeless for the five years before April 4, when he moved into his Cypress Landing apartment. The apartment complex is part of a bold new experiment that aims to get the chronically homeless off the streets of Tampa in five years.
The solution: providing the estimated 500 hard-core street people with 500 homes.
Though that sounds expensive, it’s a lot cheaper than the way government and homeless advocates have dealt with the problem so far, backers say. Emergency room visits, medications, interactions with police, trips to jail, hospitalization and a stream of social services are costly. Advocates argue the new approach will save millions in tax dollars spent on those services.
Steps Forward’s strategy is to combine whatever government money is available with donations from the community and businesses — and the non-profits backers themselves — to take a home run swing at homelessness.
Though the concept is new in Tampa, it’s not elsewhere, said Phil Mangano, CEO of the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness, at a discussion Tuesday morning among advocates and Steps Forward directors.
The formula is simple, he said: housing first, services to follow, not the other way around.
The shift in focus takes a business approach, he said. Mangano said a University of California study found that in Santa Monica, a homeless person over 18 months can cost taxpayers up to $200,000.
For less than that, Mangano said, “You could rent an oceanside condo with a concierge. It is costing taxpayers more to keep people on the streets.”
Providing a home costs between $12,000 and $25,000 a year, depending on the location, he said.
When a homeless person has a home and receives services for the poor, they are less likely to take trips to the emergency room, less likely to wind up in jail, he said. They tend to require, over time, fewer services, too, he said.
“It’s a myth,” he said, “that chronically homeless people choose that as a lifestyle, while 99.9 percent will tell you no.”
Cal Reed chairs the Steps Forward board of directors and is sold on the approach.
“We asked what we could do to help with this problem,” he said. “And we settled on this as the way to go.”
An appeal has gone out to businesses and corporations to donate money, time or in-kind services.
“We owe these people some help,” Reed said, and the old way — offering the chronically homeless job training or educational opportunities — just wasn’t working.
“It’s a stretch to think you can train these folks and get them jobs,” he said. Most are mentally ill and can’t hold down a job. Finding them spaces to live and then surrounding them with services keeps them from draining other resources like law enforcement and emergency medical assistance, he said.
Steps Forward began its “housing first’’ strategy earlier this year by renovating the 24-unit Cypress Landings apartments on North 15th Street just north of Fowler Avenue. The Cypress Landing units quickly filled up and the group is poised to open its second apartment building near Busch Boulevard. Negotiations to buy a third recently were completed, Reed said.
The Cypress Landing project is working, Reed said. “We’ve had very little turnover” of residents there, “and to my knowledge none have gone to the emergency room and none have had involvement with police.”
Other communities have tried the homes-first initiative and have met with success, said Bob Sleczkowski, chief operating officer with Gracepoint, which offers assistance and services to indigent people with mental health issues, many of whom fall into the chronically-homeless category.
“We’re not unique in that regard,” he said. Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Calif., are two homes-first communities, he said. “Philosophically,” he said, “it’s the best program in the country.”
And here, at least so far, he said, “it’s running very well,” he said.
Donations are key, and many on the board have put their own money and expertise into the fray, like Bowen Arnold, president of DDA Development, which builds affordable housing units.
“I’ve had success in affordable housing,” he said, so it came time to give back. He offers his expertise and work crews for free to renovate Steps Forward buildings.
Guy King, president of ME Wilson insurance in Tampa and member of the Steps Forward board, said the goal of providing 500 homes to 500 chronically homeless people in five years is achievable.
“The whole message here is don’t maintain the homeless problem,” King said. “Put them in homes first. The rest will follow.”