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Charity prods homeless advocates to explore grants

As the deadline for a $35-million program nears, a group wants agencies to consider the possibilities.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2003


LAND O'LAKES -- The predicament had a familiar ring.

Thousands of Pasco County residents have nowhere to call home, aside from a shelter cot, a friend's couch or a secluded patch of woods.

The federal government earmarked $35-million in grants in January to help the neediest among the nation's homeless -- those suffering from "chronic homelessness," often stemming from untreated addictions or disabilities.

And so far, none of the agencies in Pasco County has come up with a plan to apply for a penny of those dollars.

"I hate for us to sit back and not explore it, and that's what's been happening so far," said Abby Evert, regional director for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Last week, Evert urged members of the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County to look at the grant program and see if anyone could use the dollars. Time is of the essence: The detailed applications are due April 14.

"Time is ticking, and the recruitment needs to be now," said Jeff Tomeo, the coalition's executive director.

The coalition includes representatives from local social service agencies and county government. At last count, the group found 2,856 homeless people in Pasco County.

For years, the group sat on the sidelines as other Florida counties applied for -- and received -- millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help homeless people.

But the coalition has grown more active in the past two years. In December it received its first share of that HUD money: $1-million to help Catholic Charities convert the Druid Hills apartment complex in Dade City into units for 10 homeless families.

While encouraged by its first major success, Evert told the group Thursday not to become complacent. In order to remain competitive for future HUD grants, she said, Pasco agencies must continue to improve their plans to get homeless people into shelters, then transitional housing and ultimately a place of their own.

They must also keep their eyes peeled for new opportunities, such as the $35-million earmarked by the federal government Jan. 27 to help those plagued by "chronic homelessness," she said.

The pot is a blend of dollars from HUD, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Veterans Administration.

The goal is to help people who have been homeless for more than a year, or people who have slipped in and out of homelessness at least four times in the past three years. For the most part, they are individuals, not families.

In order to qualify for funding, the agency's must have a plan that addresses the underlying conditions -- often a substance abuse problem, mental health condition or physical disability -- that prevent people from keeping a home.

The grant program is part of the Bush administration's goal to "eradicate" chronic homelessness within a decade.

The administration estimates that only 10 percent of the homeless people are chronically so. But they use more than half of the services for the homeless, tying up resources that could otherwise help families that are temporarily homeless get back on their feet sooner, the administration says.

The $35-million pot of money doesn't fit with Catholic Charities' plans, Evert said, because her group is focusing on helping homeless families. But she said other agencies, such as the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute, the Salvation Army or the Pasco County Housing Authority, should see if the money could further their programs.

Some of those groups are already looking.

"Right now we're in the early stages of evaluating our options," Harbor spokeswoman Beth Hardy said. "We're looking at the best possible uses for the money and what it would take to apply for it, but we don't have any specifics yet."

The wheels are turning, the dialogue starting, and that's all Evert wanted.

"We can't continue to let these dollars go by and get any closer to HUD's goal that we eradicate homelessness," Evert said.

-Bridget Hall Grumet covers social services in Pasco County. She can be reached at 352-521-5757 ext. 23 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 23. Her e-mail address is bhall@sptimes.com .

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