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Tallahassee Leaders Continue Exploring Solutions To End Homelessness

Steven Schmidt, a combat veteran in need of permanent housing, addresses the Tallahassee City Commission at a meeting that streamed online on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 202`1.
Tallahassee City Government
Steven Schmidt, a combat veteran in need of permanent housing, addresses the Tallahassee City Commission at a meeting that streamed online on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 202`1.

Tallahassee leaders again stressed their commitment to ending homelessness at this week’s city commission meeting.

Commissioner Diane Williams-Cox says her office has received numerous calls from residents wanting to know how the city is addressing the issue. “We need to put that out there so people will know: Your tax dollars are at work to try to help with the homeless situation."

About 800 people in Leon County don’t have a stable place to spend the night. Instead, they’re living in shelters, in their cars or outside. That figure comes from the latest point-in-time count from the Big Bend Continuum of Care, a coalition of providers combating homelessness in Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor, and Wakulla Counties.

The continuum's federally designated lead agency manages a $3.8 million budget, Amanda Wander, the agency's executive director explained at the meeting. Most of those dollars cover permanent housing assistance, including rent payments and application fees, she said. More than $1.3 million helps fund emergency shelters. Funding for the continuum's homelessness services comes from a mix state, local and federal dollars.

Wander says the agency lacks the resources to reduce the number of people who are chronically homeless to zero. Significant progress toward this goal will take more than additional public dollars, she said. “We need everybody in the community to come to the table to solve this issue," she said. "It is complex and difficult to solve, but not impossible."

In December, commissioners created the $250,000 Landlord Risk Mitigation Fund. Property owners who agree to lease units to people on the verge of eviction may apply for some of those dollars. At least 25 landlords have applied, said Abena Ojetayo, the city’s director of housing and community resilience.

“We’re early in the game to determine if it’s working. But it is one of the best practices across the nation. So I think it’s an important tool in our toolkit. So far it looks like we have interest," she said. "We’re going to be doing targeted outreach, starting with those who are most vulnerable for eviction.”

Most of the meeting’s discussion centered on the future of a homeless shelter in the Old Town neighborhood. Dozens of residents spoke about plans to give the City Walk Urban Mission shelter, located at 1709 Mahan Dr., permanent residency.

Steven Schmidt, a combat veteran, was one of two shelter residents who addressed the commission. “This morning I wake up — I’ve got brand new shoes on so I could walk — I get on my bike. My bike needs to be fixed. I go to the Urban Mission. They help me out. They didn’t charge me for anything. I didn’t have the money. Then I rode my bike off. I went and filled an application out to try to get a job. I came here, got mud on my shoes, dirty. The only place I’m going to be able to go back to is there. I’ll get to have a shower tonight.”

Not everyone is supportive of the mission. David Raney owns the Lunchbox, a restaurant located nearby. He calls the shelter a nuisance.

“I’ve been on that property for over 20 years, not only working there but then owning the property. I’ve never had anything stolen off the property until recently. In the last few months I’ve had multiple situations of outdoor furniture being stolen and taken somewhere else, whether it’s to a campsite or wherever else for the homeless people — it’s gone missing," Raney sad. "I’ve had my outdoor bathrooms’ doorknobs and doorhandles damaged to where they need to be replaced." He says people were using his outdoor restrooms to bathe before he locked the doors.

Other residents in the area expressed similar complaints. But many also recognize the need for shelters in the community.

City Walk got permission last year to operate as an emergency cold weather shelter, which is permitted to open only when overnight temperatures fall to 35 degrees or below for three hours straight. But last month the city discovered it had violated those terms. Now the shelter’s operators are seeking a permit to offer people who have nowhere else to spend the night a place to sleep and take a shower.

The city will consider a land use change to move the process forward on March 8.

Commissioners say reducing homelessness will remain a top priority in the coming year.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.