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Hillsborough homeless aid enters new era

TAMPA — Hillsborough County handed off its responsibilities for housing the homeless to nonprofit organizations but is still working on a big-picture solution to the decades-old problem.

County Administrator Mike Merrill traveled to St. Louis last week to study its homeless program and warned county commissioners Wednesday that achieving the same level of success could take years.

“It took St. Louis nine years to be the best program in the United States,” Merrill said. “Nine years ago they looked a lot like us today.”

Merrill’s comments came on the same day commissioners approved giving $1.17 million to Metropolitan Ministries to provide temporary housing to at least 240 families and single women a year. The nonprofit organization will provide 48 apartments on its Florida Avenue campus north of downtown and 12 apartment units in other parts of the county.

The county also is working on contracts for emergency housing with the Salvation Army and the Agency for Community Treatment Services. The Salvation Army will provide housing to individuals while ACTS will take clients with mental or substance abuse problems.

Merrill decided the county should get out of the housing-the-homeless business last year after he learned employees in the county’s Homeless Recovery Program were sending people to unsafe, vermin-ridden slums. The commission approved Merrill’s plan to disband Homeless Recovery in favor of nonprofits that answered requests for proposals.

Merrill said the main lessons gleaned from the St. Louis trip were that one umbrella organization should guide the community effort, and that the community at-large, especially the business community, must buy in to the effort.

For years, the umbrella organization here was supposed to be the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, now renamed the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.

“The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative was established to be that agency,” Merrill said, “but it was never empowered or resourced to do it.”

But the Homeless Initiative has been revamped with a new director and an expanded board. The agency has changed its focus from providing short-term services to the homeless to housing them, a trend found to be more effective in communities across the country.

In St. Louis, where the city and county are consolidated, the city government is the homeless umbrella organization. That wouldn’t work here, Merrill said, because the Hillsborough County is governed separately from the three cities inside its borders — Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.

“For us it makes more sense for the county not to be the lead agency,” Merrill said.

One of the hurdles St. Louis already has cleared, Merrill said, is bringing 90 percent of the agencies that work on homeless issues under the city’s management. All the providers use the same protocols and case management system.

“The point being it’s not the city that’s providing the service, it’s all the provider system that’s managed by the city that’s providing the service,” Merrill said.

Here, the challenge will be bringing the homeless provider groups into the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative’s structure.

“Right now we have a number of agencies serving the homeless but there’s a lack coordination and incentives to participate,” Merrill said.

Many of the agencies here don’t participate in the homeless management information system, Merrill said. In St. Louis, nearly all providers use an automated system that manages the inventory and availability of beds, as well as coordination of provider services.

Though the county will no longer be directly involved in providing housing, it will be take part in what Merrill calls “wrap-around services.”

Each of the county’s five neighborhood service centers, which aid the poor, will have a homeless specialist. Clients who are deemed homeless or on the verge of homelessness will be provided with emergency housing right away instead of having to wait days or weeks as sometimes happened in the past.

Families will be provided up to 14 nights in a motel, inspected by county code enforcement beforehand. Homeless individuals will be housed at the Salvation Army for up to five nights. And the county will continue to manage the client’s cases, helping them find more permanent housing.

“I want to stress that there’s not a wait for those individuals and families,” said Audrey Ziegler, director of Social Services. “There’s not an appointment. They’re seen the same day.”

Merrill hired Ziegler late last year to straighten out a division where three managers were fired for poor performance or conflicts of interest and the director was terminated for sloppy oversight of the Homeless Recovery Program.

Ziegler has replaced the managers at all five neighborhood service centers where many clients complained of being treated rudely by county staff.

“I think she’s really got a good handle on it,” Merrill said.

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