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Efforts to Fight Homelessness Move Forward

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Tallahassee, FL – As Florida moves deeper into the recession, homelessness in the state continues to rise. But as Margie Menzel reports, the federal government, the Legislature and local stakeholders are all taking steps to address it.

The state budget for next year, awaiting action by Gov. Charlie Crist, includes $18.7 million for homelessness programs. This year, those programs got $24.7 million - the difference coming from federal stimulus dollars. But for much of the session just past, it was touch and go whether there'd be any money for homelessness at all. For instance, Tom Pierce, director of the statewide Office of Homelessness at the Florida Department of Children and Families, says a two-million-dollar item for challenge grants, which had been cut, is back in the budget.

"That is really hard dollars for programs and services," Pierce said. "And quite frankly, I think our [local homeless] coalitions are magicians at using that as the match and leverage for federal grants. It's a critical resource for them."

Pierce said homelessness has risen statewide by five to ten percent a year since 2007. State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said lawmakers understood the need for maintaining state spending on homeless services.

"That's because of the increasing unemployment, the increasing number of people who are losing their homes, and now is exactly the wrong time to cut services for homeless people," Gaetz said.

In the capital area, after a bitterly cold winter, private donors and the City of Tallahassee are taking action. On Apr. 14, the City Commission approved $70,000 in block grant funds to match $30,000 from an anonymous donor to pay for two new staffers at HOPE Community, which provides transitional housing. Last week, the emergency homeless shelter, The Shelter on West Tennessee Street, announced its purchase of a nearby building, fueled by private donations and expanding its strained capacity by 24 beds. And Tallahassee Mayor John Marks said the city is poised to tap into federal and state dollars.

"There is a coordinated effort," said Marks. "There is a real desire, I have found, on both the local, state and national level, to address this issue of homelessness."

The Legislature also added homeless people to those protected under the hate-crimes statute -this after a series of beatings and murders have made Florida the number-one state in the nation for crimes against the homeless. The federal government is developing programs aimed at stopping homelessness - especially in the two fastest-growing homeless groups: veterans and children. Marks said the Obama Administration will announce its new plan on May 20th.

"We know some of the points that they will emphasize in that plan. For instance, the president has already announced that he is going to put a lot of emphasis on homelessness related to veterans, and that he intends to end homelessness related to veterans."

The local Veteran's Administration is part of the coordinated effort, said Marks, and the federal plan will emphasize putting homeless people into immediate housing.

"And the idea, of course, is that if you can put people in housing, it stabilizes their lives, and we can address the issues that are impacting them a lot better if you put them in housing. And then we can transition them out of that housing a lot quicker into the mainstream society, if you will."

Marks had called all the local stakeholders - providers, donors, consumers, academics, the religious community - together in late February. After near-record-lows the month before, there'd been a lot of finger-pointing, but now, said Marks, the city and county will open a temporary cold-nights shelter whenever the forecast calls for three nights in a row of freezing temperatures.

"We will not rely on others to tell us when to initiative a plan," he said. "We will coordinate the efforts with everybody that's dealing with this, I don't care if it's the cold-nights shelter, the homeless shelter, whatever, we will coordinate our efforts, but the city and local government will not wait, like we did this year, depending on others to give us the information as to when we should take action."

Marks said the Frenchtown neighborhood, already home to The Shelter, won't be asked again to host a temporary cold-nights shelter, as it did last winter at Lincoln Neighborhood Center.

"They have contributed their fair share to this issue, the Frenchtown community, and I don't see any reason why we should again have them address this issue in the manner in which they did last year," he said.

Marks also invited a number of local movers-and-shakers to join the local initiative to fight homelessness. For instance, he asked philanthropist Rick Kearney, president and CEO of Mainline Information Systems, to take a lead role in reaching out to the business community.

"They're a little focused on their problems," said Kearney, "but until you see other people's problems, you don't have the perspective. And I think we need to get some of that perspective built, and they will get involved. And I think there's something universal about - when you help others, good things happen in your business. And I think that's something people will see again and again."

The local initiative to end homelessness meets today at the Florida State University College of Social Work from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The public is invited.