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Politics

New homeless coalition leader eyes aggressive strategy

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:04 AM
TAMPA -

Maria Pellerin Barcus sat in a borrowed office, typing on her laptop, her business card holder empty. Against one wall were stacks of file boxes that had someone else's name on them. The only window was guarded by a set of iron bars.

It was a perfect setting for Barcus, the new chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. She just started work last week and still needs a GPS to find her way from one place to another.

She comes to a city that has the highest homeless rate in the state. More than 7,000 people are living on the street or in shelters, according to a survey taken two years ago.

Why are so many homeless in Tampa?

"That's what I'm here to find out," she said. "The homeless situation here is pretty serious."

Barcus takes over the lead organization in the county that deals with homelessness, but it is by no means the only one. There are dozens of partner and associate groups involved in the issue, and it's easy to duplicate efforts or compete for the same funding.

The first order of business is simple: Be more aggressive in pursuing public and private funds, she said, and building and converting living space for the homeless.

The way Barcus looks at it, fixing the problem is not as complicated as most would think.

"The challenge is to help the community figure out what resources are out there and direct them there," she said. "I like a challenge. I enjoy this sort of thing. I was hired to take the coalition to a new level. It's a group seeking to reinvent and reinvigorate itself."

Her method worked as head of a housing assistance program in Miami, where she switched careers from urban development to housing the homeless more than two decades ago.

Back then, Miami had more people living on the street than any city in the state. Thousands crowded downtown areas and even South Beach.

Now, Miami counts just 700 people living on the streets or in shelters. The solution included federal, state and local grants and funding from non-profits and faith-based organizations.

The epiphany for Barcus came when she began working with people rather than corporations as the sole employee of Carrfour — French for crossroads — a supportive housing group established by the Miami Chamber of Commerce. For 11 years, she helped raise tens of millions of dollars to provide some 700 new housing units for the homeless.

"I wanted to work more closely with people," she said, "I was impacting people's lives rather than impacting certain areas."

Alan Ojeda, immediate past board chairman of Carrfour, has high praise for Barcus. The two worked together for years.

"I think she is extremely committed to the cause,'' Ojeda said. "I think she has a lot of very good ideas and deep feelings for trying to help as much as she can.

"Her strength and her tirelessly fighting for the homeless was something to admire," he said. "She is very passionate."

After working on the homeless issue in Miami, Barcus kick-started the Florida Supportive Housing Coalition, a statewide organization that advocated for and secured resources and homes to the state's special-needs homeless.

Shannon Nazworth, past president of the Florida Supportive Housing board of directors, has worked with Barcus for nearly a decade.

"She is one of the best advocates in the state," Nazworth said. "A lot of what the state is doing now to deal with homelessness is because of the hard work Maria has done."

Barcus was a perfect fit on the board for the housing organization, said Nazworth, who is executive director of Ability Housing of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville.

"She was very good at enabling all the participants on the board to be active participants," Nazworth said. "She was not a micromanager. She was open to ideas from others. She is extremely dedicated to this cause.

"You guys are very lucky to have her over there," Nazworth said. "She knows what she's doing. She's an intelligent, hard-working person who understands the needs of the community."

Barcus continues to serve on that coalition's board of directors and represents the organization on the Florida Council on Homelessness, the state's interagency council.

The mission of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County is to eliminate homelessness in 10 years. That aim is high, she said.

"Is it a feasible goal? I don't know," she said. "It is possible to greatly, greatly reduce homelessness."

A refugee from Cuba in November 1960, she started out living with relatives in Lakeland; the family ran a Spanish restaurant in Tampa. "For some time now, I have wanted to come to this area," she said. "This kind of feels like home."

The coalition's board and Barcus still are on a honeymoon.

Hillsborough County School Board member Candy Olson, also president of the coalition's board of directors, praised Barcus' track record.

"A lot of us thought the coalition needed to go in a different direction; it needed to become more of a coalition, much more action-oriented," she said. Barcus "brings to the table demonstrated experience in the support of housing along with the special needs homeless, the people who have mental illnesses, substance abuse problems and years of homelessness. It's hard to treat them."

Barcus' experience in Miami and at the state level will help in Hillsborough, Olson said.

"She impressed me and some of the other members of the search committee with a very down-to-earth, pragmatic approach about how to move quickly and how to solve these problems," Olson said. "Her practical nature and her let's-get-it-done approach and her experience sold me on her. And she's articulate. She can talk to anybody."

That may be a plus, as the mission of the coalition is "To bring together various entities, agencies, service organizations and individuals to establish and maintain a concentrated effort to break the cycle of homelessness in Hillsborough County."

Part of the task is to make the coalition the point agency in dealing with the homeless issue. There are many partners with the coalition, including Metropolitan Ministries and the Salvation Army that offer a bulk of emergency shelter space; Tampa Crossroads, Catholic Charities and the Tampa Housing Authority.

The coalition currently is granted nearly $7 million in federal, state and local money, not including donations.

"Here, we have 10 times as many unsheltered street homeless people as Miami," Olson said. "We're looking forward to working with her to find solutions to homelessness."

Barcus, 61, spent the first few days getting a feel for the town, meeting other advocates and organization leaders. She's also looking for a permanent residence for her and her husband of 11 years.

"Everybody," she said, "needs a home."


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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