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New Florida law aids advocates for homeless

— A new law going into effect today is aimed at providing a steady source of funding for groups fighting homelessness.

The law (HB 979), which state legislators passed unanimously last session, was approved by Gov. Rick Scott last month.

Among other things, it encourages homeless advocacy organizations to apply for challenge grants, depending on population size and ability to match funds, either in cash or in-kind contributions.

The money is intended for what’s known as a “wraparound” approach, encompassing mental health services and job training, as well as permanent housing solutions and job-placement assistance.

It’s that comprehensive view that won support from the governor and a majority-Republican Legislature who previously have been loath to fund programs for the poor.

Lawmakers set aside an initial $4 million for the initiative in the $77 billion state budget for 2014-15, which also goes into effect Tuesday, said state Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena.

Each grant is capped at $500,000, though it’s likely the state will give out a larger number of grants at lesser amounts to spread the wealth.

Peters and state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, pushed companion measures in their respective chambers.

Peters said the measure will help rectify the lack of funding for homeless programs during the economic downturn.

“It was during the recession that we should have been investing in efforts to fight homelessness, and we weren’t,” she said. “Now, this will help people get on the path to independence.”

The law also provides that an existing state trust fund for affordable housing can be used for anti-homelessness efforts.

It directs the Department of Economic Opportunity to contract with a nonprofit group to provide job training and technical assistance.

The challenge grants will be administered by the Office of Homelessness in the Department of Children & Families. A conference call for interested organizations is set for Wednesday.

Lesa Weikel, spokeswoman for the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, said her organization will apply for a grant.

“What we’ll be writing it for, we don’t know yet,” she said. “We’re continually looking at the overall continuum of care for the homeless to see where there are gaps, and what gaps could be filled by a challenge grant.”

That could include a lack of permanent housing or a need for better street outreach.

“We focus on the most vulnerable, those at greatest risk of literally dying on the street,” she added.

Rhonda Abbott, CEO of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board, also is interested.

“Just the fact that there’s another $4 million available is very exciting,” she said.

Abbott said there’s a need for temporary shelter for families.

For instance, the state’s Council on Homelessness cites the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that “homelessness among families with children is the fastest growing homeless population.”

For the 2012-13 school year, Florida public schools identified 70,215 students as homeless, including those in “families that have lost their housing and are staying with family and friends.”

In January, local communities counted 41,335 people in Florida who were living on the street or in an emergency shelters, according to the state council’s annual report. That includes 3,305 in Pasco and 3,391 in Pinellas.

That statewide total is sure to be an undercount because 16 counties “did not conduct a count of homeless people due to a lack of resources.”

The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative’s effort at a census in Hillsborough County counted 2,243 in February, down from 2,275 last year.

But “increases in the number of homeless veterans and their families, and unaccompanied youth, offset the decreases in the other subpopulations,” its report said.

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