DADE CITY — The problem of homelessness is nothing new in Pasco County, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only raising concerns that more people will lose the ability to house themselves or their families.
This worry isn’t unique to Pasco, of course. As the pandemic continues to negatively impact the economy throughout the country, extended periods of unemployment put pressure on individuals trying to keep up with mortgage and rent payments.
For many, the reality of losing their homes has already occurred, be it during or before the pandemic.
The County Commission, with the assistance of federal government funding, took aim at the local homelessness problem during its Sept. 8 regular meeting.
Marcy Esbjerg, Pasco County’s director of Community Development, presented commissioners with a plan of attack that included an additional $3.8 million in federal Emergency Solutions Grant COVID-19 funding provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and part of the greater $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
The county’s Coordinated Investment Plan, which commissioners approved unanimously, is a nearly $7.4 million initiative to provide housing to 225 homeless families or individuals and prevent another 100 households from losing their homes. The funding comes from 10 different sources, with the majority being coronavirus and CARES Act-related. It’s because of this unprecedented amount of funding, Esbjerg said, that “we wanted to make sure that our plans are strategic, and whatever we decided to do would really make a visible difference to our community.”
The county will be working with nonprofit organization the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County and its Continuum of Care Program to implement its Coordinated Investment Plan, which was developed with the help of another nonprofit, the Florida Housing Coalition.
A countywide point-in-time count in 2019 identified a total of 762 single adults and 209 families as being homeless in Pasco.
With the assistance of local agencies, advocacy groups and businesses throughout the county, individuals and families in need will be identified and contacted. These will be managed on a case-by-case basis in order to tailor solutions.
“One of the questions that we are often asked about this is, where are people going to go?” Esbjerg said. “Where is the housing coming from?”
She said 150 ready and existing units throughout the county had been identified as of Sept. 8 and that the initiative doesn’t include the construction of sites dedicated to housing for the homeless or those on the brink of becoming homeless. Esbjerg said the plan also intends to cooperate with local shelters and motels to help with the temporary emergency housing of some individuals prior to finding new homes.
All five commissioners voiced their support of the Coordinated Investment Plan. Commissioners Jack Mariano and Kathryn Starkey noted the importance of not only reducing the number of homeless people, but addressing underlying issues individuals may be struggling with that contribute to their temporary or chronic homelessness.
“It’s a very important segment of the population to try and get treated and it’s not just getting them in a place, it’s the treatment,” Mariano said, citing drug abuse and mental health issues.
Starkey asked Esbjerg what the Coordinated Investment Plan’s policies are on individuals found to be using drugs. Esbjerg responded by saying the No. 1 objective is getting people sheltered or helping them keep their homes.
“This program is based on a housing-first model,” Esbjerg said. “That means that we put people into housing first, no matter what. While they’re being housed, we are building relationships, building trusts, and helping them to identify the additional steps that they need. This might involve Suncoast Recovery (Center). It might involve CareerSource for job placement, or AmSkills. It might involve mental health counseling.
“The difference with this program is that somebody does not need to jump through additional hoops to get housed,” Esbjerg continued. “You get them housed, you get them stable in their housing, and then work on the other issues.”