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Lawmakers Lobby Both Houses For More Homelessness Funding

A mural on the side of a Tallahassee homeless shelter.
Freestone Wilson / Flickr

As the Florida House prepares to begin budget negotiations, a pair of lawmakers is banding together to talk up the need for including more funding to combat homelessness in that budget. It’s the continuation of an effort that appeared to pass last year, only to meet with the governor’s veto pen.

At the end of last year’s session, Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) had gotten at least some of the homelessness-fighting funding he desired. But the senator’s high was short-lived, as Governor Rick Scott stripped some of those provisions from the final document. Latvala says it became clear to him what was happening.

“The ability to get in the budget was based on who the legislator was, as opposed to some sort of criteria," he says. "And I’m very hopeful that this would help us direct money to where it’s needed and have a criteria for where it’s needed the most.”

On Tuesday, Latvala and Rep. Kathleen Peters (R-South Pasadena) staged a full-court press on behalf of homelessness funding, simultaneously taking the podium in committees in both the House and Senate. Peters says the bills spend state money on challenge grants that homelessness prevention groups would compete for. And she says it’s clear which proposals would receive favorable treatment.

“We are only looking for programs that will have wraparound services to ensure that it is not just going into one thing. But we’ll be talking about comprehensive wraparound services, as well,” Peters says.

What she means is that any money awarded by the state couldn’t simply be used to pay for more beds and food for the homeless. Latvala says it must instead be used to help people treat the many factors that led to their current conditions.

“To not only shelter the homeless, but provide mental health services, job training and so forth,” he says.

Tuesday’s committee hearings are part of a larger conversation trying to establish best practices for how to shrink the state’s homeless population. But one factor everyone agree on is that not enough money has been spent in the past on solving the problem. And local governments have begun to aggressively lobby the Legislature for more stable funding sources. Palm Beach County has stationed its legislative affairs director, Todd Bonlarron, at the capitol to lobby for bills like Latvala’s.

“Our board of county commissioners has asked us to make that a priority up here,” Bonlarron says. “Both in looking at different tools from the perspective of how do we ask the state to put a little more skin in the game and create a dedicated funding source for homelessness and then how do we look locally to see if there’s some other options that might be available.”

Peters told the House Economic Development and Tourism Subcommittee the Sunshine State has the third-most homeless people of any state, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows the statistics for chronically homeless people are even more dire.

In a 2013 report to Congress, HUD estimated that only California has more people without roofs consistently over their heads. HUD’s numbers guess that Florida even has 50-percent more chronically homeless people than New York and Texas, which rank third and fourth nationally.