Program assists Tampa's homeless veterans
TAMPA - As Tampa's leaders weigh new restrictions on the behavior of the city's homeless residents, one part of the homeless population is poised to find some relief.
Starting July 15, more than 200 homeless veterans can get housing help and counseling through a joint program by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
The agencies are providing those housing vouchers on top of 755 they already have provided in Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties in recent years, said Karen Collins, spokeswoman for the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa.
The vouchers are part of a national effort to house all the country's homeless veterans by 2015.
Under the program, HUD provides housing aid and the VA provides medical, mental health and substance-abuse counseling as needed.
"The targets are chronically homeless veterans," said Maria Pellerin Barcus, director of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Homeless people are considered "chronic" if they have been homeless for a year or have had four episodes of homelessness over three years. In both cases they are considered homeless if they are living on the street, not if they are sharing housing or sleeping on a friend's couch, Barcus said.
Tampa Police Department Capt. Marc Hamlin told the city council last week there could be up to 700 chronically homeless people on the streets. Lately, some of those men and women have provoked public outrage by breaking into buildings and relieving themselves in public spaces, often in neighborhoods north of downtown Tampa where revitalization is underway.
It's hard to know exactly how many of the region's homeless are veterans.
Barcus declined to offer an estimate, even though the coalition's biannual homeless survey asks people about their veteran status.
Barcus said the coalition relies on estimates by the VA for distributing housing vouchers.
"Rather than use counts, we use data from people that interact with the VA in a year," Barcus said.
Collins said about 90 percent of the county's housing vouchers for homeless vets have been claimed. Still, an exact count of homeless veterans remains elusive. Other VA programs targeting homeless vets have served 256 to 845 people during the past few years.
The vouchers that go into effect this month will provide people guaranteed housing. The vouchers are shielded from the automatic across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
That's not the case for nonveterans.
The region's regular Section 8 housing program could lose up to 400 slots in the next year because of sequestration-related cuts in HUD's support for the Tampa Housing Authority.
Authority officials didn't respond to requests for comment.
The loss of Section 8 vouchers will be far-reaching, touching people including those living with HIV/AIDS.
Normally, when one Section 8 client moves out of the program, the voucher passes to a new client. Under sequestration, the vouchers will disappear.
"The loss of 400 vouchers is very significant," Barcus said. "We were counting on 60 placements that we now have to make up for some how, some way."