County officials apply for a $1.4 million grant to provide housing and treatment for up to 380 people.
A few weeks ago, as Pasco County commissioners debated whether to apply for a $1.4 million federal homeless assistance grant, the county's community services director dropped this bombshell:
"One thing about the homeless population," George Romagnoli mentioned, almost as an aside, "Pasco has the second-highest homeless population in the state, right behind Hillsborough."
When the county's homeless coalition and volunteers fanned out across the county Jan. 26 for the biannual count, they found 4,442 men, women and children living in shelters or on the street.
That's more than Miami-Dade County, which has five times the population of Pasco.
Miami-Dade County has reduced its homeless population by 27 percent since 2005, while Pasco's homeless count has stabilized around 4,500 for the past three years.
Based on those numbers, nearly 1 percent of Pasco's total population is homeless, making it the highest per capita homeless rate in Florida.
Pasco's figure does not include about 3,000 or so adults and children who are "doubled up" with friends or family because they lost their homes.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designates a specific day in January every two years for the national homeless count. It is how the department allocates funding for shelters and other agencies that help the homeless.
Romagnoli questions whether other counties are under-reporting their numbers. That's the only explanation he can come up with for why Pasco has more homeless people than every major metropolitan area across the state except Tampa.
"I do not believe this is accurate," he said. "That's a joke. Our count is done with military precision. Our numbers are honest."
But Eugene Williams, who heads Pasco County's Coalition for the Homeless, said it's time for county officials to get their heads out of the sand.
"Here's my opinion," he said. "These other counties have facilities where they can house people. We have more people out on the street because we don't have homeless shelters."
Last year, for the first time, Pasco got a major cash infusion for homeless services. The federal shelter grant swelled from $78,000 to $500,000, plus the county received $1 million in stimulus funding to prevent homelessness.
"The stimulus allowed us to save 600 families from homelessness," Williams said. "Actually, our numbers went down, but all I hear about is that we're number two in the state."
The county's funding is a fraction of what Miami-Dade spends for homeless services.
David Raymond, executive director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, said his agency budget this year is $49 million. He said he stands by his numbers.
"I'll tell you why we have a smaller homeless population (than other counties) – we tax ourselves," Raymond said. "We invest in homeless services in this county."
In 1993, Miami-Dade became one of the first counties in the nation to assess a 1 percent sales tax on food and drinks at restaurants and bars. The bulk of the meal tax, 85 percent, goes to pay for homeless programs. The rest pays for domestic violence programs.
"Last year it generated $16 million, and we use that to leverage a lot of HUD money," Raymond said.
Miami-Dade operates two Homeless Assistance Centers with a combined total of 756 shelter beds. The centers also provide meals, counseling, adult education and health care. They even have dog kennels so clients can keep their pets.
"Our Homeless Assistance Centers have served 88,000 people since they opened," Raymond said. "We have a 60 percent success rate."
Pasco has few resources to address homelessness. There are seven shelters throughout the county, most run by faith-based organizations. Combined, they provide 153 beds year-round. Plans for a shelter for homeless veterans on Ridge Road fell apart this year.
Two more shelters will open in the next year, in Zephyrhills and Port Richey, bringing the total number of shelter beds countywide to 208.
"Yes, we're the second highest in the state, but reporting those numbers got us an extra $300,000 in funding this year," Williams said. "It allowed us to add 20 more shelter beds and get housing vouchers for five severely mentally disabled people and 50 veterans."
The county also applied for the $1.4 million grant, which would provide housing and treatment for up to 380 homeless people with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
"The goal is not just to put them in a house and forget them," Romagnoli said. "If they need detox, we put them in detox first. (The grant) provides counseling. They need a lifestyle change."
County Clerk Paula O'Neil said the grant is desperately needed because Pasco has a severe shortage of treatment facilities for people with mental health and substance abuse problems. She believes that has contributed to the county's disproportionately high homeless rate.
"I do believe they're closely related," she said. "In the clerk's office, we see it on a daily basis."
O'Neil said her office issues 1,000 Baker Act orders every year for people with mental illness and more than 200 Marchman Act orders for drug abusers. But judges can't sign the orders unless there is a facility or drug treatment center that can accept the patient.
"Access to mental health assistance is so limited in Pasco," she said. "There's nowhere to go. We have families stand in front of us every day looking for help. A lot of these people end up on the street or in jail."
Despite the need, Romagnoli said the county is "a long shot" to win the grant.