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Tampa shelter provides hope for long-term homeless

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Published:   |   Updated: August 14, 2013 at 09:26 AM

TAMPA — “Don't obsess. Talk about it. Then get back into the game.”

So says the hand-made poster hanging on the wall by Andrea Abdalla's single bed. The 41-year-old former office manager is holed up in Safe Place, a haven just north of downtown for homeless people with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues. She knows every day is a struggle with booze and pills; her salvation and destruction.

So, Abdalla repeats the mantras that are now leading her through life.

“I need to take care of myself,” she said in an interview this week. “I have to learn to love myself.”

Abdalla counts herself among the chronically homeless. She came to Safe Place six weeks ago. Before that she was living under a bridge.

She's not among the new faces of the homeless, those blistered by the economy and living with friends and relatives. She is the first to admit her life is in shambles for reasons of her own doing.

Over the past five years, a lot of attention and money has been put toward solving the burgeoning homeless epidemic. It was a time when regular, working-class families lost their jobs and tumbled out of their foreclosed-upon homes, sympathetic victims of the housing bust and sagging economy, the nouveau homeless.

As the situation improves, they are returning to work, finding their way back into permanent homes. Over the past year or so, the number of people without homes has steadily dropped.

What's left on the street is what was there before: the chronically homeless; the marginalized with mental illnesses and disabilities. They are disenfranchised by society, unable to hold jobs or navigate the course of home ownership.

Safe Place is a small safety net for those people in Hillsborough County. The agency takes in those who might make you nervous when you walk past them begging on the street or sleeping in a doorway. Its organizers say it's doing fine now but that they're worried about the future.

Federal estimates say there are more than 630,000 homeless in the United States. In Hillsborough County, there are nearly 3,000, of which as many as 600 are chronically homeless, living in shabby camps in urban woods, sleeping in alcoves or under bridges. Chronically homeless is defined as someone who has been continuously homeless for more than a year or has had four episodes of homelessness over a three-year period.

Abdalla meets the definition. She's been without a permanent address for two years. She's been in and out of shelters and jail, including a stint this weekend when she was picked up on a charge of shoplifting at the Walmart on Fletcher Avenue. That could jeopardize her spot in Safe Place, but for now, her room is being held for her.

In that room, photos of her kids adorn one wall. One child was put up for adoption, another lives with an ex, and the 18-year-old is on her own. The fourth? “I'm trying ...” she said in an interview last week, her words trailing off.

Also at Safe Place is Sharon Burrowes, a 57-year-old former Marine. Burrowes has seen her share of hard times, but her demeanor is upbeat. She now lives at Safe Place but has big dreams of going back to school, getting a job.

She has relapses into alcohol, though, and that gets in the way. She returned this week to Safe Place after relapsing.

As she sat chatting easily with a couple of strangers on the second-floor landing of Safe Place, another resident strolled by.

“Hi, Pete,” she said.

“I knew you would be back sooner or later,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Burrowes chuckled, shook her head.

“Yeah, I'm like a bad penny.”

Burrowes said Safe Place is a good fit for her. The rules aren't repressive. They are forgiving. She said chronically homeless people are welcomed back if they fall into bad habits or get off medications or get thrown in jail.

“They have the right attitude here,” she said. “This place saves me.”

The program treats issues that result in homelessness, said Joe Rutherford, CEO of Gracepoint, the umbrella mental health treatment organization that oversees Safe Place. It is a critical step for some homeless people to get off the streets, he said.

“It's been tremendously successful in regard to the population we serve,” he said. “Our focus is to identify those mentally ill, chronically homeless individuals and get them off the street and into housing. The goal is to get them stabilized, under medical care with the right prescription medications.

“And, once they become stable and well, to secure permanent housing. It's a critical transitional bridge from being on the street, untreated and mentally ill, to wellness.”

But a dark cloud looms on the horizon, he said. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant, on which the entire project is funded, may disappear next year.

“HUD is making a decision to move more toward developing permanent supportive housing,” he said, “and next year, there is a good likelihood that when HUD budgets it renewal grants, we no longer will receive this grant.”

HUD, he said, is focused on making homes available for the homeless. It is not so much concerned with treating mental illness or substance abuse that leads to homelessness, he said.

“Last week was the first indication that if we don't replace those dollars with some other source,” Rutherford said, “that program is at risk.”

But other funding sources may step up, he said. He is encouraged by the enthusiasm local government officials and homeless advocates have toward solving the problem, and Rutherford hopes funding cuts can be made up elsewhere so that Safe Place will remain in operation.

HUD doled out $82 million in grants last month to help homelessness in Florida. Of that, Hillsborough County got about $5.5 million, the lion's share of which — nearly $840,000 — went to Safe Place.

Safe Place has been recognized for its work helping the homeless. The agency provides “a sense of stability and security for people who would otherwise be exposed to the life-threatening environment on the streets,” said a commentary on the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness website. For 17 years, the website said, “Safe Place in Tampa has offered safe refuge to some of that community's most vulnerable residents.

Residents at Safe Place all have been diagnosed with serious and persistent mental health or substance-abuse issues, said Rei Cooper, program manager for homeless services at Gracepoint.

Case managers lead individual and group counseling sessions, and help is available nearly around the clock at the 25-bed rooming house on Central Avenue just north of downtown, she said.

Occasionally, though not often, problems arise.

“Sometimes things can get pretty shaky,” she said, “but most of the time, they maintain their calmness and focus on their recovery. We don't have crises as much as you would think.”

Since the program began, more than 1,400 people have been helped out of homelessness, she said. Moving people on with their lives and off the streets is the goal, she said, though, “Some people do keep coming back.”

She said success is measured by how many residents move out and into their own home and how many obtain reliable incomes, be that employment or some sort of assistance.

“Independence,” Cooper said, “is the key.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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