Homeless advocates need to increase coordinationEdit

By KEVIN WIATROWSKI | The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - Everyone, it seems, has a plan to deal with homelessness in Tampa.

There are housing-first advocates. There are treatment-first advocates. There are groups focused on families, on single men, on the mentally ill, on veterans, on homeless teens. There are multi-million-dollar charities and others that barely get by.

Yet for all the time and money poured into the problem here, nearly 16,000 people remain homeless in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties – the highest rate of homelessness in the country, according to a report released this month by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Advocates say homelessness in the region has many causes, partly economic as Florida slowly recovers from the recession and partly societal with people reluctant to help those they may consider to be just lazy.

But part of the problem is also the homeless groups themselves.

They've spent years talking about solving homelessness but not enough time actually doing it, said Edi Erb, interim head of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

"We didn't have people committing resources to it," she said.

That will have to change soon as federal officials – a major source of funding for homeless programs – put more focus on programs that produce results. That will mean moving people out of homelessness quickly rather than keeping them in a limbo-like shuffle among temporary fixes.

Many of Tampa's disjointed, often-competing homeless charities agree they need to cooperate for a change.

"Everybody has to put their toys in the same sandbox," said Tracey Crocker, a founder of Covenant House, a nondenominational housing and counseling program.

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    Tampa's groups come together under the Homeless Coalition's umbrella. There, they plan for the region's needs and share government support passed along by cities and counties. But outside that umbrella, those same agencies are more likely to compete than cooperate – for both private money and clients.

"We have lots of providers here, but they tend to be very much independent," said Ed Quinn, chief of services for Volunteers of America, a statewide charity headquartered in Ybor City.

Independence has produced a system that doesn't always meet the needs of the people who use it. From the moment people becomes homeless here, they're own their own to find a way into the farflung support system.

Those with access to a phone can get some help from the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, but most depend on law enforcement, hospitals or random chance to put them into the system.

"We all know that system of care," said Debra Harris, chief of the Crisis Center's phone-based 211 information system. "There's no physical (building) that you can walk into and say, 'help.' There's no wrap-around service."

A disjointed approach to homelessness is common to cities nationwide at a time when recession and foreclosures have caused the demand for the help to skyrocket. But now the pressure is on the region's homeless advocates to coordinate their efforts.

Federal money, long the backbone local housing efforts, is withering. Over the past two years, Community Development Block Grants have shrunk by 25 percent. Other housing funds have shrunk 30 percent. More federal cuts are looming next year.

With less money to spend, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is pushing agencies to work together to guarantee those dollars are well spent, said Ann Oliva, who oversees HUD's homelessness efforts.

HUD expects to release new rules in the coming weeks that will force communities to track homeless clients from the point they enter the system through temporary housing to the point they're back on their own two feet.

"We are going to be measured as a community for how long people are homeless," Erb said.

That'll be a new approach here, she added.

"We have people leaving our transitional housing that we have no idea where they went," Erb said. "That's not effective."

In Barbara Bunton's case, that's been about 15 years.

  • * * * *

    After decades of living on the fringes of society, Bunton arrived in Tampa in 1996 with two children, a history of mental abuse and problems with a case of drug addiction.

"I was going to every program in Hillsborough County for help, but nobody would help me," Bunton said.

Some groups turned her away because of her children, she said. Others, she said, declined to help because of her addiction. In 2004, she put her children in the care of a friend's mother.

In 2007, after time in jail for drug possession, she attempted suicide beneath the Interstate 275 bridge over Marion Street. A homeless friend called 911.

"When I woke up, I was at Mental Health Care," she said. The group provides housing and treatment for people with mental illness.

Over the years that followed, she worked her way through a chain of Tampa groups focused on the conjunction of mental illness and homelessness: Mental Health Care, Project Return, Volunteers of America, Covenant House.

It wasn't easy. Sometimes she relapsed into addiction. Sometimes she spent her days watching TV and smoking.

Bunton credits Tracey Crocker with getting through her problems and putting her life back on track. Crocker, who has her own story of abuse and homelessness, runs the small charity with her husband, Pastor Cory Crocker.

"There are as many reasons people are homeless as there are reasons why people live where they live," Tracey Crocker said.

Today, Bunton, who once trained to be a certified nurse assistant, works as an in-home aide for an elderly woman in West Tampa. She's mending her relationship her children and is now a grandmother.

"It's like a new chapter of my life is beginning," Bunton said last week.

  • * * * *

    Homeless advocates say Bunton's story of substance abuse and mental illness is a common one among their homeless clients.

"A lot of people think they're just drunks, but mental illness is a real problem," said Janet Stringfellow, spokeswoman for Volunteers of America. "People need to go beyond the person in the street asking for money."

It's easier to raise money for cancer victims or stray animals than it is for homeless people, Stringfellow said.

"People are taking a look at who they're donating to," Tracey Crocker said. "Ten years ago, people were donating a lot differently than they are now."

Private money may get tighter next year as one more group, this one backed by County Commissioner Sandy Murman and supported by pillars of Tampa's community, puts its hand out for help providing long-term housing for the region's homeless.

Group members plan to rehab a Suitcase City apartment complex to provide long-term housing and support for people now living on the street. They hope their project will inspire enough donations to house 500 of the region's most chronically homeless.

Charities are worried a change in federal tax law eliminating charitable deductions will make their jobs harder by giving people less incentive to donate. Social service groups tend to depend on small donations, often given by the people they have helped, said Adriene Davis, spokeswoman for the Indiana-based Center for Philanthropy.

"There's not an easy answer for that," said Erb.

  • * * * *

    Private money helps the community secure larger federal grants. But those are also becoming hard to get as Congress tightens the noose around anti-poverty funds.

That's why HUD is now focusing on collaboration among agencies at the ground level. The hope is collaboration will do a better job of getting people back on their own more quickly.

The current system favors wheel-spinning over forward momentum, said Ray Tuller, chief operating officer for Volunteers of America.

"It's never been a results-oriented industry," Tuller said. "It has to be about getting people out of the pool."

Tampa could follow Philadelphia's model and build a central location for homeless people to get help. Or charities could simply agree to use the same vetting process when someone comes to them for help, HUD's Oliva said.

The important thing is that people go where they can get the help they need, she said.

"People shouldn't be turned away with no alternative," she said.

Tampa's homeless advocates support a more comprehensive approach. It's not clear when and how they'll make it happen.

One thing is clear, though, Erb said.

"It does mean giving up a little bit of your turf."

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