TAMPA — Less than two years after taking the helm of homeless advocacy in Hillsborough County, Maria Pellerin Barcus is calling it quits and a new director is coming on board.
Barcus, 62, is retiring from the directorship of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative in August, giving way to Antoinette Hayes Triplett, currently head of homeless services for the city of St. Louis.
“She's done an incredible job in St. Louis,” said Kathleen Beach, executive director of Gateway 180, a shelter in St. Louis for homeless women and children. “You guys have a good one there.”
Beach said Triplett, during her 13-year tenure as head of homeless services, has changed the culture of how the city deals with people on the street.
“It came during her time here,” Beach said. “It used to be you had to be a city of St. Louis resident to get services from the approved housing agencies, and about four years ago Antoinette met with other (care providers) in the metro area, and they decided people should not have boundaries. If they come to us and need help, we will take care of them no matter where they come from.”
St. Louis, Beach said, now takes care of its homeless population.
“I would say the city is very friendly,” she said. “People come here from other jurisdictions, where it may be illegal to be homeless. Here, nobody goes to jail. A homeless mom sleeping in her car with her kids isn't put in jail. Outreach teams get help for that family.”
Beach said St. Louis' loss is Tampa's gain.
“I see her as a visionary,” Beach said of Triplett. “She takes a concept and pulls it together with so many large pieces to make things happen.”
She said this summer Triplett is spearheading a push to get homeless veterans into apartments as soon as they are identified. She's more than a bureaucrat, Beach said.
“It's easy for somebody to be in an administrative position, to be in a government office and stay in that government office,” Beach said. “But Antoinette actually goes out and does outreach. In encampments along the riverfront, she knows them by name.”
Triplett was mentioned in a federal Housing and Urban Development newsletter last year, which praised her BEACH (Beginning of the End: Abolishing Chronic Homelessness) program that coordinates the efforts of governmental, charitable and for-profit businesses to cut into homelessness in St. Louis.
“Our case managers and other partners ... are doing amazing work towards ending chronic homelessness,” Triplett said in the article. She said 73 percent of the chronically homeless counted in St. Louis in January 2013 were a part of the program and more than a third of those had been placed in apartments.
The program, funded through a $1.25 million HUD grant, uses 20 agencies to provide mental health services and a stable place to live for the chronically homeless in St. Louis. The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative funnels $7 million from federal, state and local funds to front-line vendors who provide services and homes for those on the street.
Triplett did not return messages left last week for an interview.
In St. Louis, she oversees the distribution of grants to a network of about 50 nonprofits, according to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Triplett does have her critics in St. Louis.
The Rev. Larry Rich, a homeless advocate with the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis, said Triplett may be good at her job, which is getting money and distributing it, but she's no real advocate for the homeless.
“If you talk to the people who get that money, they will tell you what a wonderful job she is doing,” he said in a phone interview this week. “She's a wonderful, good person, a dedicated person, but when it comes down to being an advocate, she's not an advocate. She'll be a CEO like she is here. She's trying to get federal money, but there's a big gap between the money from the federal government and the homeless.”
He cited a homeless hotline in St. Louis. “It's wonderful on paper,” he said. “You call and get placed. But three-quarters are not getting the service. They are turned away by hotline operators because the providers are not able to find a place for them. It takes six months to get into housing.”
Officials in Tampa say they have made a good choice in hiring Triplett.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who serves on the board of directors for the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, said Triplett's leadership will bring the local program to the next level.
“When Maria announced her retirement, the timing just happened,” Murman said. A group from the initiative went to St. Louis to learn about the programs there and met Triplett, she said.
“The group,” she said, “met this wonderful person, Antoinette, and her staff that had just turned around St. Louis, how they work with homeless and develop partnerships in the community.
“We all agreed that was something we were looking for in the next phase of our operation,” Murman said. “I think it's a great opportunity to align ourselves with a great community like St. Louis, Missouri, that really takes care of its homeless, which is what we want to do here.”
Barcus, who came to Tampa 17 months ago to usher in sweeping changes in how the city was addressing the homeless issue, helped enact mandates from the federal government that switched the focus from providing services to placing homeless into transitional and permanent homes. Her job was to persuade the local advocates and governments to buy into the new philosophy.
“We get people housed,” she said, “and then work with them to sustain that housing.”
She is retiring to spend more time with family, she said. She will continue to live in Tampa but plans more visits to her children and grandchildren in Atlanta and Chicago. She will continue to consult on homeless issues, she said.
There is still work to be done, she said, mentioning two goals she was unable to achieve.
One is the creation of an organizational chart for all the advocate agencies; the other is the finalization of the community plan that lays out the existing strategy and includes all the agencies and advocates.
“I'm confident it will be completed before too long,” she said. “There are a lot of components there, but I think it's close. It's a question of pushing over the finish line.”
In the short time she was in charge of the initiative, formerly known as the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, Barcus made many changes, the effects of which may not be known for years.
“Yes, I am pleased,” she said. “I think some major things were put into motion, though it will take a while to see the results. I think the community as a whole will see the benefits of what we started by the 2016 count.”
Her methods have met with some success. According to a homeless count earlier this year, the number of people living on the streets of Hillsborough County dropped from the year before and 188 chronically homeless people were placed into apartments or houses in 2013 under the housing-first program.
The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative in February sent out 300 volunteers who tallied 2,243 homeless men, women and children. The number was down slightly from 2,275 counted in 2013.
Barcus took over amid controversy about the count in 2011, which tallied more than 10,000 homeless in Hillsborough County. But that count became suspect after it was revealed that discrepancies in the method greatly inflated the numbers. The surveys in 2013 and 2014, under Barcus' watch were more realistic.
This year's count, she said, was meticulously undertaken.
“We were able to shed some light on the number of homeless we have and get rid of some major misconceptions there,” she said.
“The upside was that there weren't 10,000 homeless in Hillsborough County. That was an overwhelming number. Now there's a sense of, 'We can deal with this.' ”