Tampa’s Homeless Deserve and Get Better


Local advocates for homeless and home-insecure persons found it a bit ironic when back in 2012 the Republicans – the wacky party then as now obsessed with an alternate-universe transfer of wealth from rich to poor – showed up in Tampa for its national convention. Tampa is home to the homeless as none other American city, perennially leading the nation in number of souls without a roof overhead.

It has for years struggled with how to best serve its unsheltered, eventually turning over its permanent housing program to for-profit property owners, some of whom provide grossly substandard units to those trying to get and stay off the streets.

For the privilege of living in such hellholes, Hillsborough County’s Homeless Recovery program (much of which is directed at Tampa) has required its most down and out citizens to sign a contract pledging to reimburse Hillsborough should they apply and qualify for disability assistance.

Adding to the cyclical problems is the county’s pocketing of those monies. Reported to be $1.3 million withheld from 885 clients over the past 5 years, the reimbursements have been channeled to the county’s general fund rather than housing programs or other direct services. If there is any cover for Hillsborough/Tampa’s social services higher-ups it must be that some other counties/cities in the nation are likewise garnishing disability checks from their still-needy. (10 of Florida’s 67 counties still use the practice).

But while saying Johnny did it too might be an ample defense for chucking erasers in third grade, it doesn’t apply when kids are waking up with bedbug bites and their parent(s) can’t afford a tube of salve. Even though it comes too late for those whose disability checks have been tapped, a critical first step has been taken to end such corporate-style raiding.

Brought to account by clients, their advocates, frontline employees and an aggressive press, Hillsborough has announced its intention to end its symbiotic relationship with seedy landowners. As early as this month, the county will begin transferring its housing business to the nonprofit sector – a move in line with urban best practices aimed at stabilizing housing for the unsheltered.

As to the garnishing of disability payments, law prohibits nonprofits from the kind of sanctioned skimming that for five years has obstructed self-sufficiency among the county’s barely housed. The forces that combined to bring about this shift can be proud that they have at least in their small corner of the world resisted the advancing corporatization of government.

And the rest of us can take a lesson in community change and how it still happens.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2014


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