A big step to help homeless - WFLA News Channel 8

A big step to help homeless

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By Tbo.com

Despite numerous efforts, Hillsborough County has been unable to come to grips with homelessness.

That understandable. It's a staggering problem.

The Homeless Coalition estimates there may be more than 17,000 homeless men, women and children in the area any given night.

There are, to be sure, a number of worthy efforts, but a systematic effort has eluded county government.

That may be about to change, thanks to a task force headed by County Commissioner Sandy Murman. Members realize the best approach to such a daunting task is to start small and demonstrate success.

They decided to focus on the 700 or so hard-core homeless, many with mental problems, who create the most problems and costs for society.

Task force members found other communities were moving away from large shelters to small complexes, where the homeless would be "stabilized" by receiving mental health support, substance abuse treatment, health care and employment counseling.

Murman plans to propose to the commission soon a plan to refurbish an apartment building north of Fowler Avenue to treat 24 residents.

About $2 million in federal block grant funds would be used for the capital work. The private nonprofit Mental Health Care, which already has a homeless program, will administer the operation. No additional funding will be needed.

The task force, which includes city and county officials, Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke and insurance executive Guy King, is basing its approach on the Housing First model.

It was developed by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, for homeless people with psychological problems.

The goal is to reintegrate the individuals into society, and that is more likely in "scattered" residences that provide a sense of home and self-sufficiency.

In the past, Hillsborough residents have rallied against homeless initiatives because they feared large facilities would bring crime and squalor.

Small facilities will ensure adequate oversight and security. The goal is to provide intensive treatment that will allow troubled individuals to take control of their lives and move out on their own.

Murman points to impressive results in other cities.

In Portland, street homeless were costing more than $42,000 an individual per year in public resources, including jail time. With the housing initiative, the costs dropped to $26,000.

In Seattle a Housing First program saved $4 million its first year and brought down the public cost per individual $2,500. In Denver, the approach cut jail time for the homeless by 76 percent.

Murman says by starting small, results can be measured. But she is confident of success and expects to raise private funds to expand the effort. The next priority will be a facility for homeless veterans.

The proposal may be modest, but it represents a major step toward the county finally implementing a comprehensive homeless strategy.

It merits support.

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