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A Times Editorial

It's time to get moving on aid for homeless people in Pasco

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001

Nearly 2,200 people in Pasco County, including close to 1,000 children, have no place to call home.

They are not winos sleeping under bridges. Most are considered families in transition -- people who have moved in with friends or relatives because they have no other roof over their heads. A count concluded in late 1999 showed close to 500 people living in shelters, cheap motels, institutions or other temporary quarters around the county and about 110 people living on the street.

Help could be coming because of money tucked away in the freshly printed $50-billion state budget proposal to be considered Friday by the Legislature.

A portion of a $5-million budget item, about $625,000, is earmarked for local coalitions to better coordinate services for the homeless. In Pasco, that would mean money to hire a coordinator or grant writer for the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County, a group of social services directors stretched by other priorities.

The lack of a point person on the coalition is problematic. Pasco is one of about 25 coalitions around the state, and the largest county never to apply for federal funding to provide shelters.

The group announced in April it would let another deadline slip by after pledging earlier to try to seek the grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pasco's share, based on population, is estimated at nearly $850,000. The coalition's disarray means the money will go unclaimed, as it has every year since HUD began making this aid available in 1995.

The inaction sparked Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, to become the lead sponsor in the Florida House of Representatives of HB 427. It sets aside $5-million for a new state Office on Homelessness to create a statewide program and financial plan for homeless programs and to 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.

In addition, the tentative budget includes $5-million 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.

While the appropriations have been approved by House and Senate budget negotiators, the actual spending plan still must be adopted. Also, the actual enacting legislation has not cleared the House even though the Senate approved it unanimously. Fiorentino said she is confident the bill will be voted on either today or Friday. It should. Allowing it to be lost in the session's hectic finale would be a grave mistake.

One of the provisions pushed by Fiorentino, an educator by trade, is a 30-day waiver of the prerequisite medical forms when enrolling homeless children in school. Pasco schools already recognize the burden these children face.

Last year, the district hired a social worker and tutor to work exclusively with homeless children and their families.

But, new help must come from beyond educators, particularly in a diverse location such as Pasco, which has no shelter for families and no shelter at all on the east side of the county.

The pending legislation in Tallahassee is encouraging and results from a Legislature-created statewide commission studying homeless issues in Florida.

In Pasco, a coalition coordinator could begin a task that remains incomplete: assembling a plan for moving homeless people to a temporary shelter, to transitional housing and to a final destination -- a permanent home.

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