Hillsborough coalition has ten-year goal to eliminate and prevent homelessness

07/30/12 Janelle Irwin
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The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County has come up with a ten year plan to address the problem after a week-long discussion with members of the community. It’s a comprehensive list of changes to how services are provided that streamline the system. Edi Erb, interim CEO for the coalition, said the changes will help more people get the help they need.

“And wrap around them with services that they need, not that somebody goes into a program and hears the services of that program and everyone goes through those services whether they need them or not. Not that all programs operate that way, but some do. So the change in the system is people don’t have to go emergency to transitional to get to permanent.”

Erb is talking about housing. Right now many organizations that offer services to people without homes have a strict criteria for how get people into a shelter or housing. Part of the ten-year overhaul includes a priority to find permanent housing situations for as many people as possible.

“Housing First is, you don’t have to demonstrate to me and complete a program to prove that you can live by yourself. We don’t require that of anyone else in the community. Why do we make the person who’s been homeless? That person who’s homeless was living in housing – different housing – at one time.”

According to Lesa Weikel, spokesperson for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, there are more than 17,000 people without homes in the county.

And according to the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County’s 2011 homeless census, more than half of those individuals are what the coalition considers “doubled-up” meaning they might be sleeping on someone’s couch, renting a motel room or even living with a family member. Only 7,300 actually need a place to stay but the county only has about 1200 beds available. Erb, interim CEO for the coalition, said the housing initiative could help bridge the gap between need and availability. She added another part of the plan would change the way people get help.

“It could be virtual. So, it could be a system that there’s no wrong door. No matter where somebody goes in for assistance, they would do that comprehensive assessment and they would determine the eligibility, basically, for the resources and make the connections to get those persons those services. So that could be virtual. It could be a single provider who has locations spread throughout the community. Hillsborough’s way to large to have a single spot. You can’t just go to one location.”

The Coalition hasn’t determined how to implement the ideas fleshed out during their discussions last week. But Erb said one thing is already certain – people who need help won’t have to jump through a series of hoops to get it.

“Instead there would be a comprehensive assessment of what the person needs and then what resources do we have in the community that would help meet those needs so that person then has a plan at that point without, again, having to go through five more interviews to determine that.”

But not everyone who participated in the discussion was happy about what was being done. Lee Baker is an Operation Iraqi Freedom vet who came home with what he described as problems. Baker said he spent a year on the streets because of it and even though he appreciates the effort being made, it’s no more than a horse and pony show.

“You go out and you find the person who’s sleeping on that sidewalk, you walk over to them – you get that person and you take them somewhere and you get them help. You don’t have committees, you don’t have people sitting in a room bitching about it.”

Jason Wilson is homeless and will be until he’s able to start working again next month. He argued the people who are trying to help have a handicap – they don’t know what it’s like to actually be homeless. One thing Wilson suggested was creating a sort of check and balance on service providers to make sure employees are doing their jobs because that isn’t always the case.

“We roll in to MHC. The same lady I went into MHC my first time who was flirting with some dude sat there, threw me a bag of hygiene and wasn’t going to help me with nothing else because she’s too busy flirting, getting paid to flirt. We roll in there on Saturday to find the same lady playing on a Wii getting paid.”

The ten-year plan laid out by the coalition does address that though. It would provide a series of benchmarks for service providers to meet and if they don’t, a tech support network to help them improve. Steve LaPour from the group Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods said he appreciated the unique perspective offered by Wilson and three others who expressed similar concerns.

“I also appreciate your youthful impatience. Many of us were there – me, many years ago – we’re trying to embrace this very difficult issue in this community. And I just want to say to the service providers who are here, thank you for what you do each and every day because we’re not that small city across the Bay.”

The recommendations for the next ten years also include ideas from how to educate people about resources available to peer support groups for people struggling to find a job to reach out to one another for advice. It also includes plans for implementation that will require support from localities, non-profits and service providers. The complete framework is on their website.

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