Hillsborough's ambitious homeless plan aims to help 500 people in 5 years

05/25/12 Lisa Marzilli
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Earlier this month Hillsborough County Commissioners threw their support and a tidy sum of cash behind a new project aimed at tackling the county’s homeless problem. It’s based on a model known as “housing first” and is being championed by Commissioner Sandra Murman and the task force she was charged with creating.

For the past year Commissioner Murman has been working with a coalition of people from both the public and private sector including Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke, M.E. Wilson Company President Guy King and the non-profit Mental Health Care, Inc. on a model that has seen great success in cities across the country. Murman says the system Hillsborough County is currently using to deal with homelessness is simply not working.

“There’s a real paradigm shift going on, getting away from using big emergency congregate shelters just to get people off the street. The system has turned out to be more of a band-aid with this huge revolving door, and modeling our entire system of care on this just wasn’t going to have any meaningful impact. What our group wanted to do was really solve the problem and not just manage it.”

The “housing first” strategy is based on exactly what it says; getting the chronically homeless - defined by HUD as “disabled individuals who’ve been continuously homeless for over one year” - off the streets and into housing before addressing other issues like substance abuse and mental illness.

Hillsborough County Commissioners recently awarded the task force $2.1 million dollars in federal block grants which will be used in the pilot phase of the project. The funds will go towards the purchase and rehab of a privately-owned apartment building near the University of South Florida. The building sits in a neighborhood categorized as “blighted”, which is one of the criteria dictated by the Community Development Block Grants. It will become permanent housing for 24 homeless individuals by this fall if all goes according to schedule. Murman says the long range goal of the project is to help 500 of the county’s most hard-core homeless get back on their feet within 5 years.

“That is our goal right now, to provide them work, supportive services, whatever they need to stabilize themselves. Most of them are mentally ill, of course, or have substance abuse issues and those issues take a long period of time to stabilize and that’s why the case management part of this is so important.”

And that’s where Mental Health Care Inc. comes in. Jenine LaCoe is Director of Outpatient Services and has been working with the homeless for more than 17 years. Research shows that the chronically homeless tend to suffer from a host of medical conditions; have usually experienced some kind of trauma and have a tendency to pass away up to twenty years before the rest of the population. And LaCoe says there is no quick fix. Research has shown that treatment can often take 3 to 5 years, making them, she says, the most vulnerable group of homeless.

“When you look at folks who are living and sleeping on the street in a very unsafe environment their main concerns are basic instincts like a bathroom, where they’re going to get food, which might be a 5 mile walk; if their belongings will be safe if they left them to go get food at a feeding site. And so I think there’s a lot of stress and safety issues to that particular group on the street. You don’t necessarily trust the system and it takes a little bit to engage people into wanting treatment.”

She says 24 may seem like an insignificant number given that approximately 700 of the county’s estimated 17,000 homeless are considered “chronic”, but LaCoe says they’re starting small because they want to get it right. And the cost effectiveness of getting 24 chronically homeless individuals off the street, she says, is pretty dramatic.

“When we look at what Phillip Mangano from when he was housing czar under the Bush administration or the HUD secretary, your average person on the street can cost up to $40,000; with a mental illness closer to $100,000 just living on the street; but if I house them that costs cuts down to about $35,000 to as low as $15,000. So when you look at a small start-off pilot to make sure we’re doing it right, it may be only 24 people but it could add up to a way we know will work, that we can continue to repeat in our community and be very proud of it.”

The private aspect of the partnership will involve an ambitious capital campaign to raise additional funding that will enable the homeless housing initiative to expand – an area Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke knows something about. As CEO of the Seattle Seahawks Leiweke led a United Way campaign back in 2008, that raised more than $100 million to help fight family homelessness.

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