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    Senate advances bill to help homeless

    For the first time, Florida would have a State Office on Homelessness to fund and unify the state's programs.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- You've seen them on park benches and in bus terminals, under a bridge or in a car.

    They are Florida's homeless, at least 57,400 people, who, on any given day, live on the streets. They include parents, children, elderly people, veterans and people who suffer from drug, alcohol and mental health problems.

    Today, Florida has a patchwork of services and a woefully inadequate number of shelters to house this population.

    But legislation given preliminary approval in the state Senate on Tuesday would substantially increase funding and better coordinate the fragmented programs for the homeless, giving unprecedented attention to the problem.

    For the first time, Florida would have a State Office on Homelessness, which Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan said would be "the conscience of the state" on the plight of the homeless.

    Brogan served as chairman of a study commission on homelessness that held public hearings around the state last year and recommended reforms.

    The legislation considered Tuesday stems from the commission's work and is a top priority of Republican Senate President John McKay, a former Democrat who earned his college degree in social welfare.

    His chief focus as Senate President has been on issues that don't have powerful constituencies and prominent lobbyists in Tallahassee.

    McKay sponsored the bill last year that established the study commission on homelessness, and he served as a commission member.

    Brogan said the commission put a spotlight on a homelessness problem that has often been ignored, or considered distasteful.

    "We've stereotyped the problem -- it is the man who is drunk on the park bench," said Brogan. In fact, he said, the homeless include women running from domestic violence, working families a paycheck away from poverty, the elderly and the disabled.

    "These are people. These are citizens," Brogan said.

    The legislation stemming from the commission's work describes homelessness as "an archaic form of human misery that can no longer be tolerated in this, the world's greatest and most responsive democracy."

    The legislation would:

    Set aside $4-million next budget year for a new State Office on Homelessness, with an executive director appointed by the governor. Among its duties, the office would create a statewide program and financial plan for homeless programs and distribute "challenge grants" of up to $500,000 to government agencies or private homeless coalitions that would develop comprehensive programs to address the needs of the homeless.

    The state office also will get $5-million a year to distribute "homeless housing assistance grants" of up to $750,000 to government groups or private coalitions that build or rehabilitate housing for the homeless. A 15-member Council on Homelessness, with representatives from state agencies as well as private organizations, also would be created to advise the new state office.

    Double the bonding authority of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to spur development of affordable housing. The corporation now can issue up to $200-million in bonds for the "Florida Affordable Housing Guarantee Program" that helps fund housing projects, including buying, building or repairing affordable housing. The legislation would increase that to $400-million.

    Provide $625,000 next budget year for a staff person at each of the 25 homeless coalitions in Florida.

    To bring attention to homelessness, the legislation also calls for the Legislature to designate Dec. 21 -- the first day of winter and the longest night of the year -- as "Homeless Persons' Memorial Day."

    "I think what's in the Senate bill is a big step forward. They are definitely on the right track," said Susan Pourciau, a member of the homeless study commission who serves as executive director of the Emergency Care Help Organization. Her group soon will open a homeless shelter for families in Tallahassee.

    Similar legislation is moving through the state House. Both chambers, as well as Gov. Jeb Bush, must approve the bill before it becomes law.

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