Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee initiated a homeless initiative six years ago because he understood officers couldn’t “enforce” their way out of the problem.
Instead, he and his team sought to take a comprehensive approach to helping the homeless.
They can be a frequent source of citizens’ complaints when they wander streets, panhandle or take up residence in parks. Officials say some commit crimes, though the offenses are generally minor.
Col. Greg Brown volunteered to take on the task, and the sheriff’s office assigned five deputies countywide to deal with the homeless issue.
The goal is not to put the homeless behind bars, but to get them the help that will allow them to get off the streets.
And it has worked remarkably well, as the sheriff’s office has partnered with other agencies such at Catholic Charities, Tampa Crossroads and Gracepoint to obtain the homeless the necessary help, whether it’s drug abuse treatment, mental health counseling, job training or veterans benefits.
Sometimes, something as simple as helping them obtain a Social Security card can make the difference between an individual finding shelter or remaining jobless.
Sheriff’s Maj. Chad Chronister tells us many of the homeless are entitled to benefits they didn’t know were available — until the initiative matched them up with the proper agency.
The program’s success has been impressive. Chronister says the program has assisted more than 500 people obtain temporary housing and helped more than 200 people get permanent housing or reunite with their families.
The effort recently took another major step when it was given permanent space in a West Waters Avenue complex in Tampa where the homeless can be interviewed and meet with social service agencies. Officers also can store supplies, many of which are donated by the officers themselves, to give to the homeless.
Chronister tells of deputies receiving complaints about a man and woman soliciting money in traffic. Deputies got them off the road, but then sought to find out why the couple was destitute. Officers were able to help them get an apartment and find jobs.
“Within six months, they were self sufficient,” he says. “It’s not that they didn’t want help. They just didn’t know how to get it.”
The sheriff’s office’s enlightened approach to homelessness is similar to its strong support of the Boys and Girls Clubs and other programs that steer young people, particularly in troubled neighborhoods, from crime.
Sheriff’s deputies, to be sure, remain tough on offenders. Hillsborough crime has gone down nine straight years and is at its lowest level since 1986.
But as the homeless initiative illustrates, there is far more involved to fighting crime than simply putting people behind bars.