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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

Money for homeless may open up

Published:   |   Updated: February 22, 2014 at 12:09 AM

CLEARWATER — Half a million dollars could go a long way for a nonprofit like the Homeless Emergency Project, a place that provides housing and other crucial services for hundreds of individuals and families trying to transition out of homelessness.

The maximum grant award from a permanent trust fund proposed by two state lawmakers could cover the entire annual budget for a 32-unit veterans’ housing complex, staff and all. It could pay for client dental care for a year.

“The thing is, we can use any money at this point in time,” said Terrence McAbee, president and CEO of HEP. “Our donations were down last year because of the economy. So any extra funding we can get — government or otherwise — is always welcome.”

A proposal was filed earlier this week by Pinellas County Republicans state Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Kathleen Peters.

Peters has been an advocate of confronting homelessness, which she has said she considers a fiscal as well as a human-rights issue. She said with the economy doing better, there’s room to help those in need in an efficient way.

“We really suffered a very difficult economic recession,” she said. “And Pinellas County in particular, we had so many homes underwater, and our mortgage and our unemployment in Florida was so high that we saw this huge uprising in homelessness. And at the same time, the governments were losing money because property values were dropping so much.”

The law wouldn’t really affect the state budget. Instead, it ensures that an already-existing trust fund will by law be designated solely for programs addressing homelessness. In 1992, the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Act created the fund by way of a 10-cent stamp tax increase on real estate. The money would be given to various nonprofits and agencies benefiting individuals and families without homes.

As the economic drag on tax revenues wore on state coffers to the point of a multiyear budget deficit, lawmakers would sweep the Sadowski dollars into the general fund. Peters said new law would prevent that from happening.

“This is something that was already in place, so we’re not talking about a big fiscal impact,” she said.

Most of the money — 95 percent — would be given out as grants through the state Department of Children & Families. The rest would be administered through the Department of Education in the form of training for grant recipient staff.

Latvala and Peters filed the bill on Tuesday, and Peters is confident it will have traction, given discussions she has had with Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford.

“I believe that the speaker’s agenda this year is really focusing on many of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens,” she said.

McAbee said HEP runs on about $5 million a year, funded through corporate, individual and government contributions — about a third each.

“I guess I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “And I hope and pray this goes through.”


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