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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014

Legislative measures offer holistic approach to homelessness


Two local lawmakers are taking a practical approach to dealing with the state’s homeless population. State Sen. Jack Latvala and State Rep. Kathleen Peters have introduced bills in advance of this year’s legislative session, which begins next week, that aim to get homeless people off the streets and back into mainstream society.

Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, says he wants the state to support programs that offer transitional housing solutions and job training. His bill would create “challenge grants” of up to $500,000 to local programs across the state based on need and a successful track record. The challenge grants would be matched by local governments or private organizations.

We think the measure, and a similar one in the House introduced by Peters, a Republican from South Pasadena, deserve serious consideration by lawmakers.

As the Tribune’s James L. Rosica reports, Florida’s homeless population is the nation’s third largest, with more than 45,000 people living on the street or in shelters.

In 2013, more than 10,000 homeless were counted in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Jailing the homeless, or sending them to temporary shelter accommodations, does little to reverse their fortunes and ends up costing taxpayers more in the long run than it costs to support the local programs that provide meaningful assistance.

Along with providing better housing options, the money would go toward job placement assistance and mental health evaluations. It could also boost efforts to get identification cards and secure benefits for homeless veterans.

“Just opening a center where people can come from 6 o’clock at night to 6 o’clock in the morning to hang out is a Band-Aid approach,” Latvala says. “A more comprehensive approach is what we want to try to encourage here.”

The bill would dedicate funding from the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program, known as SHIP, for the grants, which would be awarded to homeless programs that successfully apply. If the measure passes, and state lawmakers resist the urge to send the SHIP money elsewhere this year, an estimated $8 million would be available for programs that advance stable housing and training for the homeless in Florida.

Accountability measures built into the proposed law would steer money to agencies that operate with a minimum of administrative costs. It would also require that reports be written on whether the grants are achieving the desired results.

As with any measure, there are uncertainties. Tying the grants to matching funding has the potential to favor larger programs at the expense of smaller ones, and lawmakers need to make sure the bill ensures a balanced playing field.

But overall, the measures being proposed provide a steady stream of money that is meant to break the cycle of homelessness for thousands of Florida’s neediest residents.

That sort of holistic approach is the direction Florida needs to be moving.

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