Sunday, February 18, 2007

Rising costs. Fewer housing options. Less help. It's a scenario that sparks fears of a spike in Florida's homeless population.

Thanks to a few tents and a couple of police officers armed with box cutters, St. Petersburg's homeless problem has gotten national attention.

But to those who track homelessness and its causes, last month's tent slashings aren't as alarming as what could happen in the future if housing and government funding trends continue. Consider:

- Staggering tax and insurance increases are forcing landlords to raise rents - Pinellas' average rent increased 12 percent in two years - even as apartments are disappearing due to hurricane damage and condominium conversions.

- Federal money for building more affordable housing is dwindling or disappearing, while state lawmakers last year refused to repeal a cap on the state's affordable housing trust fund.

- Social service programs that help keep people stable and out of homelessness, including rent subsidies, job training and health care programs, are waning even as the number of people needing them increases.

The result of these trends, housing and homeless experts fear, is that moderate income earners will squeeze low income earners out of the affordable rental market and that thousands on the brink of homelessness will topple over.

"The safety net is gone and there simply is no way for them to survive," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.

The effects of stagnant incomes, shrinking housing and slackening aid already are being felt. Statewide and across west-central Florida, homeless counts are rising, from an estimated 1,500 in Pinellas in 2000 to 4,400 in 2006. Hillsborough saw its homeless population jump from an estimated 3,600 in 1999 to 11,000 in 2005.

Advocates for the homeless fear those numbers are a sign of things to come. They worry that people whose incomes sheltered them from homelessness in the past might be vulnerable now.

"We're talking about people from median income on down. People from 100 percent of median income on down just aren't making it," Snyder said.

* * *

Homelessness is getting a lot of attention these days, in St. Petersburg, in Florida and across the nation.

Specifically, states, communities and even the federal government are adopting multiyear plans to end "chronic homelessness." The chronically homeless are people who have been homeless more than a year or homeless several times in the past few years. Often they have serious underlying problems such as substance abuse or mental illness.

Conventional wisdom says these people need "supportive housing" - long-term living units with access to counseling and other services. Many states and cities, Florida and St. Petersburg included, are working to create more of those living areas.

But experts say it does little good to have a homeless policy without a housing policy. Many people who are homeless on a given night simply couldn't make the rent due to a short-term financial crisis like a medical or auto repair expense, or a lack of cash for security deposits. And the drug-addicted and mentally ill need a place to live after they've stayed in a shelter or similar space long enough to stabilize.

"Homelessness is a housing issue at its root," said Tom Pierce, director of the state's Office on Homelessness. "And it's not just a low income issue anymore. The middle class is being priced out of the market. Teachers, firefighters are having trouble finding housing in their communities."

Last year, Pierce's office, which gives $400 per year per qualifying family facing eviction when unexpected expenses eat up the rent money, ran out of money in October. Lawmakers added more, but Pierce plans to ask for almost twice as much - nearly $4-million - for the next fiscal year.

But if people can't find an affordable place to live in the first place, the emergency fund can't help much. That's especially true in Pinellas, where units of affordable housing are disappearing and there's little land left on which to build. From 2003 to 2005, some 4,500 of the county's mobile homes disappeared; developers bought out the mobile home parks to build more expensive developments.

From 2000 to 2005, 4,400 Pinellas apartment units were converted to condominiums. Meanwhile, average home values in Pinellas jumped 72 percent during that time, while the average rent jumped 12 percent from 2004 to 2006.

* * *

Both county and state homeless strategy plans acknowledge the need for more affordable housing. But it's ultimately up to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to arrange for construction.

But don't look for a rash of building soon. The housing corporation's most recent annual report - for 2005 - outlines the difficulties facing the state right now.

"This past year has been a year unlike any other for affordable housing in Florida," director Stephen P. Auger wrote in the report. Hurricanes, storm evacuees, the costs of land, construction, insurance and utilities, plus apartments converting to condominiums have put significant pressure on the state's ability to provide affordable housing, Auger said.

On top of that, many agreements the state made years ago with apartment complexes to set aside units for low income renters will soon expire. (The complexes received favorable loans through the housing corporation in exchange for the set-asides.)

Funding for federal Section 8 rent vouchers has been flat for a number of years - most housing authorities, including St. Petersburg's, have long waiting lists. And state lawmakers, over the objections of affordable housing advocates, last year chose to retain a $243-million cap on the state's affordable housing trust fund, and to keep the rest of the $940-million free to use for other emergencies.

"From afar people look at our housing trust fund and they salivate, but only a small percentage gets spent," said Freyja Harris, program director of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless.

"The problem is only going to get worse, but the funding is not going to increase unless that cap is reversed," Harris said.

But restoration of significant spending, whether directly on housing programs or indirectly on supportive social programs, is considered unlikely in this budget environment.

On the state level, lawmakers are expecting a very tight budget year, and community organizations that provide social services to the homeless and other low income Floridians are gearing up for a fight for funds.

Recent changes in the state's Medicaid program, which provides health care to the poor, have forced some community mental health organizations to lay off workers whose job it is to ensure that mentally ill clients at risk for homelessness follow their treatment plan.

Florida likely will give back some $17-million in federal funds because the state, to control its share of cost in a joint children's health care program, tightened eligibility requirements.

At the federal level, at a time when wages are stagnant and a St. Petersburg resident must earn $13.31 an hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment (or else work 80 hours a week at minimum wage), funds for a job training program considered key to preventing homelessness have been reduced the past few years.

President Bush has proposed a second round of cuts to the country's social service programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, as well as eliminating the Social Services Block Grant.

These things keep Snyder of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless awake at night.

"It's one thing to get people off the street today," Snyder said. "But the long-term issue of where are people going to live is a real concern."

By ALISA ULFERTS St. Petersburg Times
Published February 18, 2007

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